By Debbie Stevenson
Killeen Daily Herald
In the midst of a $9.4 billion budget shortfall, the Army may be facing the ax on its popular private housing program after the House Rules Committee stripped key protection language in the 2005 construction appropriations bill last week.
It is deeply disappointing that 50,000 military families at 27 installations in 22 states will have new housing put on hold during a time of war as a result of this decision, said U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco.
Missing from the provision was a measure pushed by Edwards to boost the $850 million cap on the program by $500 million, starting Oct. 1. Edwards Congresional district covers Fort Hood until the November elections when the states redistricting takes effect.
The Pentagon is expected to reach the spending ceiling in November if the cap is not raised, Edwards said.
Ed Veiga, asset manager for the programs civilian contractor, said the flap will not affect Fort Hoods current Residential Housing Initiative as the remainder of the project has been funded through its scheduled completion date of Oct. 1, 2006.
The cap is for projects that are not yet in operation, Veiga said. Our project was funded at the beginning when it started Oct. 1, 2001, so we are in full operation. We have the money to continue the development project that we had planned, and the cap does not affect us.
The $4 billion, 50-year program is the largest for the Army and has focused on four- and five-bedroom homes for the junior ranks. As of the end of June, 764 of the scheduled 974 homes had been completed, Veiga said.
The crunch could come if a new population assessment for Fort Hood calls for more housing, as the current initiative was built on a population numbers tallied in the late 1990s.
Those numbers will increase dramatically by next year with the announcement last week that the post will receive an additional 5,000 troops for the 4th Infantry Division under the Armys transformation program. Community leaders also are targeting more troops through the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
In a news release, Edwards lashed out at Republican deficit hawks who have rebuffed his efforts to raise the overall programs funding cap.
Twenty-five times in the 108th Congress, the Rules Committee has waived points of order in other pieces of legislation, but today they have made a terrible mistake and perpetrated an injustice against those servicemen and women who serve this nation in uniform, Edwards stated.
The Office of Management and Budget has backed the 8-year-old program, which has been viewed by the armed services as the only way to tackle a growing need for more family housing and replace aging, substandard units.
Without the program, Defense Department officials estimated the services would need 30 years under the old military construction system to deal with an estimated 180,000 substandard housing units. Under the privatization program, officials said they could work off the backlog in 10 years.
The Army Times reported in its current edition that the dispute was not about its value but how to pay for it.
The Congressional Budget Office, a bipartisan arm that assigns price tags to legislation, opted to include the programs investment money in the defense budget. That meant the House Appropriations Committees construction bill technically raised the investment cap without having the money to do so.
Budget Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, told the Army Times that while he was a supporter of the housing program, he could not back the $10 billion measure unless the investment cap was removed.
If the House really supports the housing plan, it should cut funding elsewhere, he told the Times.
His position unsettled his Republican colleagues and angered Democrats.
This is a slap in the face to every military family, especially those whose loved ones are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Edwards declared in a news release.
Republicans vowed to come to an agreement.
We are going to make sure that this problem is solved this year, said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.
On the Senate side, Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison pledged to work to raise the cap for what she called much needed housing for the posts troop influx.
Senator Hutchison is committed to raising the cap, said Kevin Schweers, Hutchisons spokesman.
Senator Hutchison will do all she can to ensure the program will continue to provide the soldiers the housing they need, he said via telephone Friday from Washington. Right now, the issue is not yet resolved, but Senator Hutchison remains committed and is very hopeful we can get it done this year.
Hutchison has been a longtime backer of the initiative, touting its benefits for Fort Hood.
We could never, ever have put the housing we have on the ground if we had had to fully fund this from our Department of Defense funds, Hutchison told her colleagues on the Senate floor in March.
Schweers said Hutchison was prepared to defer on the issue to members of Congress writing the defense authorization bill, unless progress is not being made
If they are either unwilling or unable to do that, she will work to raise the cap in the military construction appropriations bill, Schweers said.
Contact Debbie Stevenson at firstname.lastname@example.org