Military lobbyists fear cuts as leaders look to fund Katrina aid
WASHINGTON — Could Hurricane Katrina close down the Defense Department’s stateside elementary schools?
It’s not likely, but that’s one of several cost-cutting proposals being discussed as the federal officials try to figure out how to pay for an estimated $150 billion cleanup and recovery effort in the battered Gulf states.
Lobbyists for the military worry that Katrina could overshadow the sacrifices troops and their families are making in the war on terror, and that the costs of rebuilding could take away funds from military health care, day care and paychecks.
“We’re not concerned with the validity of getting funds down there (to hurricane victims),” said Kathy Moakler, deputy director of government relations for the National Military Family Association.
“But we also have a lot of military families who have lost everything, or who are sacrificing with their spouse overseas. How far can we stretch them?”
Congress has already approved more than $62 billion in emergency relief for victims of last month’s hurricane, and officials from the Congressional Budget Office estimate repairs to infrastructure and federal facilities alone will cost at least $35 billion more.
With potentially hundreds of billions of dollars needed for restoration efforts over the next decade, House Budget Committee chairman Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, said on Thursday he would seek a 2 percent cut in all 2006 discretionary spending, including some defense programs.
And last week, a group of Republican lawmakers offered a package of $102 billion in cuts to offset the hurricane costs, including about $740 million saved from defense costs through proposals such as closing all defense elementary schools in the U.S., consolidating the three military exchange systems, and lowering benefits and raising premiums drastically in military health care.
Meanwhile, the Military Coalition — a group of 36 veterans and military lobbying organizations — has spent the year pushing for things like higher pay increases for active duty military, expanding Tricare to at least partially cover all reservists, and protecting programs for military families.
But retired Col. Steve Strobridge, co-chairman of the group, admits that even before the Katrina disaster lobbyists had an uphill battle to get those issues on the table. Now, he expects it’ll be even harder.
“I think our arguments for our proposals are still there,” he said. “They’re pretty good arguments. But you can’t make assumptions about how (lawmakers) are going to react.”
While radical ideas like closing the defense department schools would be a tough sell in Congress, he said, “At the very least, now they’re going to be talked about.”
Ed Dockery, legislative expert at the Fleet Reserve Association, said for now his group is cautiously optimistic about the impact of the hurricane relief. The new debt didn’t prompt any major changes in the 2006 defense budget discussions, and he hasn’t heard any other indications that military programs will be cut in the short term.
“When you’re talking about money, there’s always a concern,” he said. “Obviously you don’t want your pocket reached into if it can come from someone else’s. But I still feel like the last thing they will go after would be defense.”