By Debbie Stevenson
Killeen Daily Herald
With costs spiraling upward for dueling war fronts and hurricane cleanups, fiscal conservatives in Congress are trying to put a sacred cow on the budget ax table: military and veterans benefits.
Led by U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., their official list of proposed cuts includes offering military personnel cash in exchange for reduced health-care benefits for families.
The less comprehensive plan would encourage individuals to be more cost-conscious in using their health care by including deductibles, co-payments and maximum out-of-pocket expenditure limit, the Army Times reported the study group as saying in their written explanation.
The group noted the measure could save an estimated $2.4 billion over 10 years, with some savings coming from military families paying more out-of-pocket for treatment and from deferred care for others.
As it has been in past years, the plan is dead-on-arrival, said an aide to Fort Hoods Republican congressman.
When it comes to the military, I dont see any cuts being made, said Gretchen Hamel, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock. Were going to be cutting back the budget, but it will be things like discretionary spending, subsidies.
Less controversial proposals included consolidating the militarys three exchange systems to save up to $1.9 billion and closing stateside military schools, a move military families have opposed in states where public schools are considered substandard.
President Bushs 2006 budget, unveiled Feb. 7 at $2.57 trillion, actually proposed significant increases for the military and also international spending while eliminating dozens of politically sensitive domestic programs, including funding for education, environmental protection and business development.
The White House proposal for the fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, set aside $419.3 billion in discretionary budget authority for the Pentagon, a nearly 5 percent increase over fiscal 2005 funding levels.
Defense spending in fiscal 2006 is 41 percent above fiscal 2001, a Defense Department news release stated.
We are a nation at war, said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, defending the increase in the Feb. 7 news release. The presidents budget, together with the supplemental spending proposals the president has made, provides the men and women in uniform what they need to prevail.
Included was a 3.1 percent increase in base pay, plus bonuses, and recruiting and retention programs. Not included in the Feb. 7 budget was another $80 billion in supplemental appropriations, including $75 billion for the Defense Department to cover the cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the current fiscal year.
Faced with new bills expected in the billions from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Bush on Tuesday conceded more federal cuts are inevitable.
Ill work with members of Congress to identify offsets and to free up money for the reconstruction of areas hit by Katrina and Rita, he told reporters during a news conference, his first since May.
Pence and House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, told the Associated Press that they welcomed a renewed presidential campaign for fiscal discipline, recognizing that it is the only way to make balky members of Congress go along.
The presidents call to reduce spending is of incalculable value to those of us fighting to respond to the needs of this disaster without raising taxes or adding to the national debt, Pence said.
Focus on the Pentagons growing budget is nothing new. The sudden leak in January of a Pentagon memo about Program Budget Decision 753, a 26-page spending plan dated Dec. 23 and marked For Official Use Only, prompted an uproar on Capitol Hill. Its calls for $6 billion in cuts in 2006 and another $30 billion through 2011 sent shock waves through Wall Street and the defense industry.
The speed in which the plan was leaked by the military may be intended to pave the way for deep cuts in other programs, such as housing, veterans programs and support for national parks, a Democratic staffer told DefenseNews.com.
They leaked it because they want to show that defense is paying its share, said the aide to a senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.
The Republican-controlled Congress by this time was already looking at cuts to the favored Democratic programs such as Medicaid for the poor and disabled, student loan subsidies for banks, farm subsidies and food stamps, which combined with Medicare and Social Security are about 55 percent of the federal budget.
But many of those ideas such as trimming farm subsidies, raising rates for federally subsidized electricity and increasing the airline ticket tax have little support on Capitol Hill. Making veterans pay a bigger share of their health care costs gets rejected year after year.
This year will be no different even with the hurricanes, said Democratic National Committee spokesman Josh Earnest.
Cuts, he told the Army Times, will not come at the expense of our men and women in the military and their families.
U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, Fort Hoods former congressman, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, did not respond to requests for comment.
However, Hamel said Carter is going to make sure the military is taken care of at home, as well as our homeland security.
Carters position has wide public support.
A poll taken in March by the University of Marylands Program on International Policy Attitudes found the public reluctant to target military personnel and veterans.
In the poll, 1,182 people were presented with the proposed 2006 discretionary federal budget and how it was divided among major accounts. The respondents could reallocate the budget, including putting a portion toward reducing the deficit, although they were not told the size of the deficit.
Given the option, most opted to cut the defense budget by about one-third $133 billion, taking most of the money out of nuclear and large-scale conventional spending but leaving intact spending on military personnel, whom they rated very favorably. Spending for Iraq and Afghanistan was cut by about $29 billion, or one-third.
Bottom line, Hamel said, military personnel will remain off limits.
Weve increased military spending so much in the Republican Congress, that I dont think they are going to go back on that, Hamel said.
Contact Debbie Stevenson at firstname.lastname@example.org
2006 White House defense proposal
n The fiscal 2006 defense budget of $419.3 billion represents a 4.8 percent increase over fiscal 2005 in real terms, but is about $3 billion less than projected for fiscal 2006 in last years plan.
n This budget does not include an expected administration request for $80 billion in supplemental appropriations, including $75 billion for the Defense Department to cover the cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the current fiscal year.
n Highlights of the spending include $108.94 billion for military personnel, including funding for a 3.1 percent pay raise and additional recruiting and retention bonuses for troops. That funding would include $4.1 billion for Special Operations forces boosting their numbers by 1,400 and increasing spending for language training underscoring the requests assessment that the forces have contributed significantly to the war on terror. The budget also allocates $416 million to start the repatriation of 70,000 military personnel from overseas bases.
n In terms of weapons systems, procurement funding declined about 2 percent to $78 billion. Funding was stepped up for some systems considered important to the militarys goal of modernizing: The Armys Future Combat System receives $3.4 billion, an increase of $200 million; and the Navys Littoral Combat Ship gained an increase of $156 million to $613 million.
n The budget would cut funding for such weapons systems as the F/A-22 fighters, DD(X) destroyers, LPD amphibious ships, Virginia-class attack submarines and V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft.
SOURCE: Washington Post