Lawmakers voted to elevate the head of the National Guard to a seat on the military’s top council, granting unprecedented status to the country’s part-time militia.
The proposed change was strongly opposed by all the chiefs of the armed services and the Pentagon’s civilian leadership, who voiced concerns about creating possible friction and confusion in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior military body that advises the US president.
The proposed change was approved by the Senate as part of a large defense funding bill that was endorsed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill into law as soon as this weekend, the White House said.
Under the bill, the National Guard chief would have full membership in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which is currently comprised of a four-star chairman, a vice chief and the heads of each of the four armed services: the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.
The National Guard, which falls under the authority of US states, and reserves — under federal authority — are made up of part-time “weekend warriors” who hold down civilian jobs and can be called up for duty in times of war abroad or for natural disasters at home.
The vote comes after a decade in which the Guard and reserves played a pivotal role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in relief efforts after the hurricane and flood that hit the US Gulf coast in 2005.
“I think it’s a significant change,” said David Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Barno praised the shift, saying the National Guard chief would add a crucial perspective to deliberations among top brass as it faces budget cuts and the prospect of downsizing the active duty force.
“There needs to be a voice making an argument for what the reserves can bring to the table and how we can rebalance the force to better include the efficiencies that the reserve component provides,” he said.
With units based in each state, the National Guard represents an important political constituency for members of Congress and the vote marked a long-running trend to empower the Guard and reserves.
For lawmakers in both parties, supporting the National Guard “plays well at home,” said Larry Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former senior defense official.
But he said the move could create new rivalries and budget fights, as the service chiefs see the Guard and Reserves as elements of their overall forces.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey, has warned that the change could undermine a “unity of effort” that now prevails with service chiefs representing both active-duty and reserve units.
“There is no compelling military need to support this historic change,” he told lawmakers at a hearing in November.
But Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, himself a former member of the Air National Guard and currently a colonel in the Air Force Reserve, hailed the proposed change that he helped push along with Democrat Patrick Leahy.
The move represented “a far-reaching and historic advance for the National Guard’s role in the nation’s defense and security structure,” Graham said in a statement before the Senate vote.