Debt deal includes billions in defense cuts, but pay and vet programs safe
By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 1, 2011
WASHINGTON — Veterans and active-duty troops have worried for weeks that congressional infighting over the debt ceiling might halt their pay and benefits. Now that a deal appears to have been reached, both should be safe.
But what the compromise means for the military in the long term remains to be seen.
The compromise debt plan negotiated between Democrats and Republicans over the weekend would cut military spending by $350 billion over the next 10 years, and could cut defense spending by $600 billion more unless a joint congressional committee provides alterative savings or revenues.
That latter, larger cut is designed to be a trigger mechanism to force Congress and the White House to take seriously any recommendations coming from the committee. It’s paired with $600 billion in non-defense spending cuts, thereby considered to be an objectionable option for members of both political parties.
Over the weekend, a group of Republican lawmakers from the House Armed Services Committee decried such across-the-board defense spending cuts, saying they risk military readiness without effectively targeting wasteful spending.
In a compromise summary sent to Republicans on Sunday night, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said veterans programs and military pay would be protected if those cuts are triggered.
In the meantime, both the cost-cutting committee and defense officials will be scrutinizing military accounts in coming months, looking at areas like major weapons acquisition and military health care costs for savings, to avoid that $600 billion cut.
The planned $350 billion defense cut is in line with what military officials had been anticipating in future spending anyway.
In a statement, White House officials said those reductions “will be implemented based on the outcome of a review of our missions, roles, and capabilities that will reflect the President’s commitment to protecting our national security.”
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama had publicly called for $400 billion in spending cuts from the military’s base budget by 2023, and hinted he may look for even more savings over that time.
Last week, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the presumed incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers that a $400 billion cut in defense spending would be difficult but possible, though anything larger would be “extraordinarily difficult and high risk” for the services.
The Defense Department’s fiscal 2012 budget request tops $670 billion, but the base budget request is only $553 billion, with the rest as funding for the wars overseas.
“So if the worst case is that $350 billion, that’s better than what the department had been expecting,” said Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “You’re looking at a defense budget that has had 13 straight years of real growth, so they’ve known some cuts were coming.”
Both the House and Senate are expected to vote on the compromise Monday evening. If the measure is signed into law on Tuesday, it would promise that federal payouts – including veterans benefits and military pay – would continue uninterrupted.
Not included in the final compromise were any of the bills pending before Congress to guarantee that military pay or veterans benefits will be paid regardless of a government shutdown or debt default, provisions which supporters have said would stop troops from being used as a bargaining chip in future budget battles.