WASHINGTON — Military leadership on Tuesday pressed plans to slash popular troop benefits and curb pay raises but House lawmakers remained committed to preserving those benefits.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff testified during a rare gathering in the Senate and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke in Chicago on the need to reduce personnel costs.
Meanwhile, the House prepared for debate Wednesday on a defense budget that would “nickel and dime” some ship, aircraft and construction programs to help fund pay raises and benefits for troops, said Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
The Republican-controlled committee has rejected the Department of Defense proposals to cap pay raises at 1 percent and slash the costs of military supermarkets, housing allowances and the Tricare health care system – despite dire warnings by the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff in Senate testimony Tuesday that readiness could suffer otherwise. Armed Services is expected to cobbled together a final draft of the defense budget late Wednesday and send it to the full House for a vote.
“Through smart planning, rearrangement of capital and resources, targeted cuts, and reduction of some bureaucracy, we’ve been able to shield our military from a crippling blow,” McKeon said during a speech at the Heritage Foundation.
Pay and benefits remain untouched. McKeon and other Republicans in the House say the DOD has given Congress a false choice between cutting spending on troops and their families or overall military readiness.
The $521 billion budget – and an additional $79 billion for the Afghanistan war effort – would compromise on the embattled A-10 Warthog. It would take the aircraft out of service, but keep it in a high-level storage status; the planes could be quickly activated.
“It has saved the lives of countless American men and women in combat,” McKeon said. “It still has over a decade of service life left in it, and it’s to be replaced by a plane, the F-35, that is better suited to do other jobs.”
The House budget also cuts spending on Navy ships, the KC-46 Pegasus aircraft and aircraft carrier-based drones.
“We looked for savings in programs like the Littoral Combat Ship, the Zumwalt destroyer, and military construction projects,” he said. “Given the failing security situation abroad, it is the height of stupidity that we even have to make these choices in the first place.”
Still, the budget provides for an array of equipment and programs, including nearly $800 million to refuel the nuclear-powered USS George Washington aircraft carrier, $1 billion for readiness programs, $80 million for body armor, and $100 million for medium and heavy tactical vehicles.
On Tuesday, the DOD was pushing a very different budget message – that pay and benefits reform is crucial to balance the budget and preserve military readiness.
Hagel lashed out at Congress for an “irresponsible deferral of governing responsibility” that allowed the Budget Control Act of 2011 to become law and force automatic cuts to the nation’s defense spending.
“And even as Congress has slashed our overall budget, they have so far proven unwilling to accept necessary reforms to curb growth in compensation costs and eliminate DOD’s excess infrastructure and unneeded facilities,” he said during a speech in Chicago.
Also Tuesday, all members of the Joint Chiefs testified in a rare gathering before the Senate Armed Services Committee to warn of the dangers of a shrinking defense budget and press for support of a 1 percent pay-raise and reductions to commissary, housing and health care benefits.
In addition to the 1 percent pay raise, the DOD proposes cutting subsidies to base supermarkets from $1.4 billion to $400 million annually, reducing housing allowances until servicemembers pay about 5 percent for residences and utilities, and consolidating what Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Adm. James Winnefeld called a “bewildering” Tricare health care system.
Overall, the reforms would save the military about $2 billion in the 2015 fiscal year and $31 billion over five years.