Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is one of the few lawmakers who routinely and publicly agrees with the Pentagon’s assessment that the military personnel budget is in need of serious structural reform. But even he was unwilling to embrace the department’s proposals Wednesday.
“Could we find $2 billion [in the federal budget] this year that would avoid us having to make structural decisions about commissaries, about TRICARE and other things about compensation? I’ll probably support these things in the end, I’d just like the commission to do it,” he said. “It’s not that I don’t trust the department’s work product, but we’ve got ourselves in a bind here. You’ve got a commission studying the same subject matter. You’ve got an administration that’s got to come up with money within the budget caps. If we could find a $2 billion safety valve, I think we could allow the commission to do its work. If you’re going to ask people to give up some of their housing allowances, I’d just like to make it a more thoughtful process and be able to go to these folks and say, ‘We’ve had the best minds in the country looking at this.’ I just think it be easier for us to sell.”
No easy choices
DoD says it’s not just a $2 billion problem. The Pentagon estimates the changes it wants to begin making next year would carry compounding savings that would accrue to the tune of $31 billion over the next five years.
And Hale said even delaying the changes by a year or two would throw DoD’s already-tenuous budget plans way out of balance.
“If you delay all of these, the whole budget slips,” Hale said. “You would have to wait probably two years before you could act on the commission’s recommendations, so it’s probably another $15 billion or so in that period. I don’t have the exact number, but what you’re doing is forcing further cuts in numbers of personnel or modernization in the out years.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, said she acknowledges none of DoD’s budget choices are easy ones at the moment. But she said the combined effects of all of the department’s proposed changes would be unnecessarily harsh to service members, especially those who are at lower ranks, and consequently are lower-paid.
“We offer a set of benefits and pay to incentivize our forces to take on these very tough jobs and make the sacrifices of having to relocate your family every two or three years, and your spouse may not be able to work because of that relocation,” she said. “So we really are changing the deal. My concern is if we have this commission and they are going to do a more balanced approach, it seems to be a missed opportunity to not wait to see what they can come up with. This was not an easy process for the Pentagon, but these are real cuts. If you’re a family that’s making $20,000 or $30,000 a year, that 30 percent in grocery savings really matters.”
Defense officials say they were only able to win the military’s Joint Chiefs’ support for the personnel spending cutbacks by pledging that any savings would be applied directly to the military services’ accounts for readiness and modernization, both of which have already taken significant hits and would suffer further if sequestration kicks in again in 2016.
Hale said those are precisely the funding priorities that would most suffer if Congress decides to prohibit any cuts to the services’ personnel accounts.
“The chiefs set meeting after meeting debating these very points,” he said. “But if you choose to go back on these proposals, you’re going to have to take it out of somewhere. I don’t think you’ll want to take it out of modernization, because we could have the same debate about whether we’re buying enough aircraft and ships. I hope you don’t want to take it out of readiness. But those are the choices you’ve got.”
The Pentagon also believes that a majority of its own service members might be less protective of their pay and benefits than members of Congress are. Based on surveys, the department thinks troops are more concerned about the ongoing cutbacks to their training, equipment and other budget-related limitations on their ability to do their day-to-day jobs than they are about their own compensation around the margins.
“Our members join our service to learn and exercise their skills,” said Jessica Wright, the acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.”We believe that readiness and training are clearly the ultimate care we can give our service members. If we cannot afford to train, exercise and operate – -if the quality of their service is diminished — we will lose precisely those service members we want to retain.”
From closed federal buildings and memorials to rallies on Capitol Hill, the October 2013 shutdown had a big impact on D.C. and the federal workforce.
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