CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Last week, Delegate Pat McGeehan lost — on a tie vote — a motion on the House floor to discharge from committee a bill that would prohibit West Virginia’s National Guard reservists from serving in non-declared war zones.
But McGeehan, a former Air Force captain who served in Afghanistan, did secure a promise that the bill would be considered in committee. And on Tuesday afternoon, during the final 15 minutes of a committee meeting, a majority of delegates voted to pass the bill along.
“I’m just happy the discussion is still moving forward,” McGeehan, R-Hancock, said Tuesday in a hallway interview. “It’s been a difficult fight, an uphill battle here, with this particular bill.”
The “Defend the Guard Act” was voted out of the House Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security Committee, 15-7.
With time ready to expire before a health committee meeting, some delegates seemed to vote in favor of advancing the bill, at least in part, so that constitutional issues may be discussed before the House Judiciary Committee, its next destination.
“Isn’t this referenced to Judiciary where all the lawyers live?” asked Delegate Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette.
Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said she supports the bill on constitutional grounds, and she would like to continue that exploration in Judiciary.
“I think our number one obligation is to the Constitution,” she said.
“Another reason to support it is to have another full discussion in Judiciary. We all benefit from a full discussion of the Constitution.”
Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, concurred.
‘I’m going to vote in favor of this to move it on. I do think we have some serious constitutional questions here,” Butler said.
The bill would require an official declaration of war or an action to call up state militia by the United States Congress before members of the West Virginia National Guard could be released from state control to participate in active duty combat.
The last time Congress actually did that was June 5, 1942, when the United States declared war on Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. Since then, the US has used the term “authorization to use military force,” such as against Iraq in 2003.
“Washington’s really a lost cause. We’ve been at war in this country for at least the last two decades,” McGeehan said.
“So war has really been the status quo, where the founders really thought peace would be the status quo.”
The West Virginia National Guard and county governments where there are bases have expressed deep reservations about the bill, mostly over federal funding issues.
“If passed, this bill would cause the Guard to lose the federal funding it needs to operate and would ultimately result in the loss of hundreds of jobs,” Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper stated last week.
Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, who is also a candidate for governor, expressed worry about the 130th Airlift Wing and its 400 full-time employees.
“The legislature should not support any action that would be harmful to the guard or to the livelihood of our brave service men and women,” Salango stated.
In the House’s homeland security committee — during a jam-packed 15 minutes of discussion — delegates were split with their sentiments.
‘The sovereign makes war. In this nation the sovereign is ‘we the people,'” said Delegate Marshall Wilson, R-Berkeley, contending that Congress has abdicated its duty. “For that reason, I will support this bill.”
Delegate Kevan Bartlett, R-Kanawha, said he would vote against the bill because its basic concepts are not state issues.
“They need to be taking this up with Congress. It’s a federal matter,” he said.
Delegate Roy Cooper, R-Summers, talked about being a young man of draft age. Without the draft, he said, the National Guard is called up to serve in time of military conflict.
Cooper said the National Guard needs to be ready and needs the support of the federal government.
“Constitutionality, I know is important to everyone in this room, but we have got to be a cooperating state with the federal government,” Cooper said. “I am not going to support this motion at this point or ever.”
McGeehan said he looks forward to discussing the bill during its next step in the legislative process.
He downplayed concerns about federal funding, saying that’s an obstacle that’s been presented to thwart the bill.
“I think it’s a bluff. Even if it is true, I think it’s exaggerated,” McGeehan said.
Then McGeehan, whose father, Lt. Col. Mark McGeehan who died in the 1994 Fairchild Air Force Base B-52 crash, concluded by saying this:
“At the end of the day, if the adjutant general wants to come up with these figures about how much we’re going to lose in federal subsidies or if politicians here want to argue how much we’re going to lose in federal subsidies, I challenge them to go to the next funeral of a fallen soldier here in West Virginia when he comes back in that casket draped in that American flag and talk to the widow or talk to the orphans and say ‘Well, I’m sorry ma’am, but your husband had to die in this unnecessary war overseas because we just couldn’t lose these federal bribes.'”