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House Democrats blast lack of cuts in draft defense budget

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives’ current draft of the nation’s defense budget ignores tough cuts needed in military programs, pay and benefits and risks creating fiscal “chaos” in coming years, the ranking minority Democrat on the Armed Services Committee said Thursday.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said a Republican majority is still in denial over the need for the DOD’s proposed reforms to military commissaries, housing allowances, healthcare, and ships and planes. Without them, the defense budget will soon be overwhelmed by unfunded costs, he said.

The House Armed Services Committee cobbled together a draft of the defense budget this week among its subcommittees, and is slated to debate a final bill Wednesday. The Senate will begin its version of the budget next week with a hearing on a proposed military pay raise cap.

“If we don’t take those steps that DOD put out there, we are creating a completely untenable situation,” Smith said during a morning forum on Capitol Hill. “We’ve got to accept where we are financially, and build a military around that.”

The DOD’s 2015 budget proposal targeted a raft of personnel costs. It would slash $1 billion from military commissaries over the next few years, leaving the base stores with $400 million annually and forcing a reduction to 10 percent from 30 percent in average savings for shoppers. Housing allowance increases would be capped until servicemembers pay 5 percent of their rent and utilities, and the Tricare system would be consolidated and fees would be increased.

Ships and aircraft would also be pinched by the slimmed-down budget. The A-10 Warthog program could be ended, and the Navy may retire the USS George Washington aircraft carrier, which is in need of an expensive overhaul.

But the House Armed Services Committee this week did little to trim costs. Its subcomittees reaffirmed there is little appetite for cutting any military pay or benefits with a series of markups that largely ignored the Pentagon’s version of the budget.

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., chairman of the HASC military personnel subcommittee, justified the draft budget, saying there should not be a tradeoff between benefits such as supermarket savings and warfighting equipment. Many Republicans worry such cuts could erode the force and ultimately be as harmful to national defense as losing ships and planes.

Smith said the overall funding situation is worse that most people realize and that there is insufficient money to protect all programs. Congress is already scrambling to find money for important needs such as the $700-million overhaul of the George Washington.

Without the DOD-proposed cuts, the national defense budget will suffer a “bow wave problem,” meaning Congress could fund programs in the 2015 fiscal year with money it does not have, and create even deeper unfunded needs over the next two to five years, Smith said.

For example, lawmakers would need $400 million to keep the A-10 aircraft program, which the DOD has proposed ending to save money. That needed funding would balloon to $3.1 billion over the next five years. Meanwhile, the Budget Control Act of 2011, also known as sequestration, is likely to continue squeezing defense spending and forcing painful cuts, he said.

“We are avoiding all these difficult decisions and just trying to get through the day,” Smith said. “If you build a strategy around money you don’t have, you end up in a bad place.”

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

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