Tuition Aid Cut; Recruiting, Timely TRICARE Pay at Risk
Here are some fresh developments that feuding politicians have created for the U.S. military in wartime:
-- Four service branches, excluding only the Navy, have suspended tuition assistance through at least September this year, a move that will interrupt continuing education plans for tens of thousands of service members and force others to use GI Bill benefits earlier than planned.
-- All of the services expect recruiting to get a lot more difficult as recruiter travel is restricted, recruiting commands are forced to cut marketing and advertising, and recruit processing centers are forced to close Saturdays, starting next month, because civilians on staff will be furloughed. From 10,000 to 14,000 fewer recruits will be signed as a result, officials said.
-- TRICARE, the military's health insurance program, is impacted by a $3.2 billion cut to the defense health program. Unless Congress allows reallocation of medical dollars from research and hospital equipment accounts, TRICARE by late August will be forced to delay payments to private sector doctors caring for military family members and retirees.
Not long ago, any one of these developments would have sent guardians of military personnel on Capitol Hill into public rants. These days, lawmakers are as impassive as auditors while listening to military officials present fresh details on how the across-the-board budget cuts are buffeting morale, slicing into personnel support programs and harming U.S. readiness.
There were only hints of disappointment Wednesday from members of the House armed services' subcommittee on military personnel as Defense manpower officials and the services' personnel chiefs gave more specifics on the disabling effects of sequestration.
"I sit here in amazement to think about the problems that you have," Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.), told military leaders. But Jones wasn't angry with his congressional leaders or even President Obama. He was angry with Harmid Karzai, Afghanistan's president, for his recent outrageous claim that the U.S. military colluded with the Taliban in attacks on Afghan authorities.
"We're spending roughly $6-to-$8 billion a month in Afghanistan. It is a failed policy. We, in Congress, certainly will be debating sequestration and where we are going to make the cuts… And yet I doubt if Mr. Karzai is worried a bit about his budget."
Rep. Susan Davis (Calif.), ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, noted that the armed services committee had held several hearings on the impact of sequestration before $46 billion in automatic cuts took effect this month. But none of those hearings, she said, had focused on solutions.
"Unfortunately, the only people who have the ability to resolve this is Congress. We must find common ground and be willing to compromise for the long-term stability of our nation," Davis said.
Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) stuck to a more familiar partisan pitch.
"The reason why we're in this situation fiscally is because for the last several years we have not been able to figure out what the priorities of the budget should be," Scott said. He noted that a now cash-strapped Army and Marine Corps had to remove a total of more than $200 million from their tuition assistance accounts in recent days to tackle other budget priorities.
"That's going to have a tremendous impact on men and women out there serving," Scott said. Yet that $200 million, he added, is "a tenth of what we spend on free cells phones in this country. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the problem. The men and women that are out there fighting for this country are paying a price because Congress has refused to get rid of things that we never should have been paying for in the first place."
No Democrat answered Scott by citing a tax loophole or a corporate giveaway that Republicans are protecting. But his remark captured the bitter division of this Congress, and perhaps why military witnesses this day sounded less than hopeful that lawmakers would be riding to their rescue.
Here are other highlights of the hour-long hearing, attended by fewer than half of the subcommittee's 14 members:
-- Rep. Davis noted that military personnel accounts are protected in fiscal 2013 but will not be in the remaining nine years of sequestration if Congress fails to defuse these cuts by approving a debt-reduction deal worth at least $1.2 trillion in combined spending cuts or tax hikes.
-- Jessica Wright, acting under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, warned that this year's protection of military personnel and pay accounts comes at a cost. Deeper cuts to operations and maintenance, she said, mean "our military personnel will receive reduced training, leading to diminishing readiness and, ultimately, diminishing morale."
-- Key family support programs will be fully funded, Wright said, but others will have to be pinched "and that will affect quality of life."
-- The Defense Health Program's "commitment to quality care is sacrosanct," said Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. Tight budgets won't affect that. "The department will also ensure that care provided to our wounded warriors is maintained," he said.
-- Access to military hospitals and clinics for family members and retirees will be preserved "to the greatest extent possible," Woodson said. But sustaining current levels of care will force deeper cuts to medical research, equipment modernization and facility maintenance, and possibly "significant negative long-term effects on the military health system."
All of the personnel chiefs warned of grave consequences if nothing is done to close budget gaps made by sequestration and lack of a 2013 appropriations bill. The lost training can't be recovered, Lt. Gen. Howard B. Bromberg, Army deputy chief of staff, reminded lawmakers.
"The negative impact on near-term readiness, and also a loss of confidence in the stability of the Army that it provides, could damage recruiting and retention for many years to come," Bromberg said.
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