Commissaries Face Deficit-Cutting Threat

WASHINGTON -- Grocery stores on military bases may soon not be such a bargain for troops -- and the recreation programs they help support may feel a financial pinch.

That is a possible outcome of deficit-related deliberations on Capitol Hill, an organization for military families warns.

The Senate could vote soon on legislation that would eliminate the federal subsidy that allows commissaries to sell goods at about 30 percent less than is typical at off-post grocery stores, as well as a proposal to combine commissaries and exchanges, which are like department stores.

Losing the discount could drive down sales, which help support gyms, libraries, fitness centers, casual restaurants and other morale, welfare and recreation programs, said the National Military Family Association.

And even if that legislation does not advance, the organization worries that the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction will eye the $1.3 billion subsidy as expendable as it seeks a total of $1.3 trillion in savings. The committee will make recommendations in late November.

The NMFA considers the commissaries, as well as military exchanges that are like department stores, an important piece of the federal government's commitment to troops and their families. With the government subsidy, commissaries sell goods at cost plus 5 percent.

The commissary at Fort Drum completed a major renovation in 2010.

And while Congress has resisted cutting them in recent years, the pull to do so is stronger this year -- and decisions are not being made by the Armed Services committees, which have been the most supportive over the years. A lobbyist for the NMFA, Candace A. Wheeler, said the organization is concerned that any of three current threats to the system could become reality.

The Defense Department, too, has steered away from major changes in the military resale system. A Pentagon study in 2006 indicated the department would not ultimately save much money by combining the systems that run the commissaries and exchanges, for instance.

"They're not going to capture the money they think they are," Wheeler said.

The association has asked lawmakers to request the Congressional Budget Office to look at the issue and estimate what savings might be generated.

A proposal that would eliminate the subsidy has advanced, passing the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and awaits full Senate consideration. That measure uses the expected savings to provide health care to veterans who were exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, N.C., between 1957 and 1987.

Wheeler said the NMFA supports helping those families, but not at the expense of the commissary benefit. She said her organization has discussed the issue with the legislation's chief sponsor, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., but has not secured any pledge to find another source of funding.

Taking the money from defense programs may prove dicey because those programs are overseen by a different committee -- Armed Services -- which might have to sign off on any change.

The deficit-cutting committee, however, has considerable power to force spending and policy changes without additional action by the authorizing committees.

On top of those two situations, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has proposed legislation to consolidate the exchanges and commissaries, which the NMFA said would imperil the discount customers receive.

In the House, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, has defended the exchanges and commissaries against major changes, while supporting more efficient operations. At a hearing earlier this year, he cautioned that while commissaries do depend on taxpayer dollars, the Defense Commissary Agency, which runs them, is a model of government efficiency and has a smaller budget than 10 years ago when adjusted for inflation.

"I believe, if you eliminated the Defense Commissary Agency, you would have to invent another benefit of equal impact on retention and the chances are it would not be as effective or efficient," Wilson said.

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