Some Defense Budget Relief Voted; Commissary Cuts Likely
The Joint Chiefs are breathing a bit easier after the House voted Wednesday to fund the government through September, and included a 2013 defense appropriations bill that would give the armed services more money and budget flexibility to ease the threat of a wartime readiness crisis.
House passage the bill, HR 933, also drove home a bracing reality: that even the most conservative defense hawks are set to allow arbitrary "sequestration" cuts to clobber portions of the defense budget, including civilian personnel paychecks and key military family support programs.
Unaltered by the House bill, for example, is a $130 million bite from commissary operations this year, which will force base grocery stores, at least in the continental United States, to close Wednesdays, their lightest sales day, from late April through September. This will coincide with day-a-week furloughs – or 20 percent pay cuts – planned for up to 800,000 civilian employees of the Department of Defense.
Civilian staff will be cut at military hospitals and clinics, at Defense-run dependent schools and at base day care centers. The Marine Corps already has announced that tuition assistance has been closed to new entrants. These are just a sampling of cuts occurring across the military because of a March 1 sequestration order to cut federal spending across-the-board to save $85 billion this fiscal year, half of that from the Department of Defense.
Since January, Defense civilian and military leaders have warned that that their 2013 budgets are in a vice, created by a continuing budget resolution that froze spending below fiscal 2012 levels, and by the "mindless" cuts of sequestration, which kicked in this month after lawmakers stopped even trying to negotiate a "grand bargain" $1.2 trillion debt-reduction deal.
President Obama and Democrats insist that any deal be "balanced" with a combination of spending cuts and new revenue, to include either tax increases or closing of tax loopholes on the wealthy and on special interests.
Republican leaders insist they will not raise more revenue, even by closing loopholes they've criticized before, given that they did agree on Jan. 1 to allow a several percentage point bump in income taxes for individuals earning more than $400,000 and families earning more than $450,000.
Neither side budged as the sequester took hold, despite increasingly dire warnings from the Joint Chiefs that readiness would deteriorate quickly and troop morale was falling amid the budget chaos.
Against this backdrop, Reps. Bill Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on defense, and Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), the full committee chairman, drafted HR 933 to accomplish some short-term goals, if the Senate will agree to it. One is to avoid a government shutdown March 27 when the current continuing resolution is to expire.
A second goal is to give some budget relief and flexibility to the military, first by passing a 2013 defense appropriations bill that had been negotiated last year with the Senate. Also, HR 933 would allow a shift of $10.4 billion from less critical accounts into operations and maintenance accounts so the services, despite sequestration, can conduct vital training and resume critical construction projects and weapon buys.
The day before the House voted, 267 to 151, to pass HR 933, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on military construction and veterans affairs, held a hearing where he pressed the service chiefs to attest publicly to the importance of HR 933.
Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Army chief of staff, said the Army had begun to cancel combat training center rotations for deploying brigade combat teams, except those bound for Afghanistan. It would be forced to cut flying time for helicopter pilots by at least 37,000 hours in 2013, impacting readiness of 750 pilots. He said HR 933 was "absolutely critical" and would address "at least a third" of the Army's budget problems.
Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, chief of naval operations, was more effusive, saying HR 933 would make "almost a night and day" difference. The appropriations bill alone would close Navy's current $8.6 billion funding gap for operations and maintenance by $4.6 billion.
If the full Congress passes it, he said, Navy would be able to put another carrier strike group and amphibious ready group forward and "get back to the covenant that we have with the combatant commanders…We'd get some carrier overhauls, we'd get carrier new construction, we'd get submarine new construction, we'd get all the military construction back."
Marine Corps commandant Gen. James F. Amos warned that unless operating dollars are restored, by mid-2014 more than 55 percent of non-deployed Marine ground units and 50 percent of non-deployed aviation units would see readiness ratings fall to C-3 or below, which means unable to carry out some core missions. Non-deployed pilots would get 10 flight hours a month versus 15 to 17 hours needed to stay proficient. Maintenance on F/A-18 fighter aircraft would fall so far behind schedule, Amos said, that "we may very well never catch up" to get the aging fleet "back up to flying status."
Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff, said HR 933 would make a "huge" difference to his service, allowing reprogramming of budget dollars to mitigate sequestration's impact.
"In a big way," Welsh said, "it allows us to look at our civilian work force and figure out a way around this idea of furloughing…180,000 great civilian airmen. We want no part of that."
But HR 933 would leave sequestration in place and also deny federal civilians a pay raise for 2013. Military strength, pay raises and benefits are exempt but not many support programs including commissaries. The Defense Commissary System (DeCA) announced plans in late February to close by late April most stateside stores every Wednesday.
Patrick B. Nixon, president of American Logistics Association, a trade group of manufacturers and vendors servicing military stores, said ALA is working with DeCA to ease any loss of shopper discounts, perhaps through special promotions or by creating "Saturday Sequestration" sales.
"Whatever we can do to help DeCA make facilities accessible and products available, at savings patrons have learned to expect, we are going to do," said Nixon, a former DeCA director. "But it's tough times."
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Tom Philpott has been breaking news for and about military people since 1977. After service in the Coast Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior editor with Army Times Publishing Company, Tom launched "Military Update," his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994. "Military Update" features timely news and analysis on issues affecting active duty members, reservists, retirees and their families.
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Tom's freelance articles have appeared in numerous magazines including The New Yorker, Reader's Digest and Washingtonian. His critically-acclaimed book, Glory Denied, on the extraordinary ordeal and heroism of Col. Floyd "Jim" Thompson, the longest-held prisoner of war in American history, is available in hardcover and paperback.