October 3  2016

Defense Spending
Budget restraints are anything but a new topic of debate on Capitol Hill. Such debates are littered with familiar terminology, such as mandatory-vs.-discretionary spending, social security, welfare, Medicare and Medicaid, and Defense spending. Defense spending often gets more than its fair share of attention in the media. Sadly, for an eighth straight year, Congress will fail to pass a FY 2017 Defense budget before the end of this fiscal year.  To keep the Pentagon … and the government as a whole … operating, Congress managed to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund federal operations at FY 2016 levels until December, but the fate of the Defense budget still hangs over the heads of Congress. With plenty of finger-pointing going on, there have been numerous congressional hearings and side conversations on the Hill as to how best to serve the military during these times of budgetary restraint.

There are only two ways to increase available funds: either cut spending or add new revenue.  Everyone has ideas about how to fix the deadlock, but no consensus has materialized.  Here are some of the proposals that will have a dramatic effect on today’s service members, if enacted.

The Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, S. 2943) proposes cutting costs by recalculating Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) rates in a way "that utilizes actual costs” of housing, up to a set limit.  The Senate also suggests revising the BAH subsidy for service members who share a residence. FRA believes this would create an administrative nightmare as commanders would have to try to determine and document “actual” housing costs, and also creates a disincentive for service members to minimize their housing costs.  It also unfairly penalizes service members who own their home and do not make rent or mortgage payments. 
Both the House (H.R. 4909) and Senate (S. 2943) versions of the NDAA propose adding revenue to their coffers by increasing TRICARE fees.  The House bill seeks to implement a new TRICARE Standard enrollment fee for active duty personnel who join after January 1, 2018. These adjustments to the budget are minor compared to overall Defense spending, but they have a huge impact on the quality of life for active duty and reserve personnel and their families.  

In addition to differing views on specific programs, both chambers of Congress have very different ideas about how best to resolve these budgetary shortfalls in general. The $602 billion House bill (H.R. 4909) pulls $18 billion from an overseas war fund that supports operations in Iraq and thousands of troops that remain in Afghanistan and channels it to buy new hardware and also cover a 2.1-percent pay raise for service members, the cost of additional troops, increased operations and necessary maintenance. The funding would be gone by April, leaving deployed forces unfunded and putting the new president at the edge of a fiscal cliff just months into their term.
The Senate NDAA rejects the $18 billion boost and is, instead, consistent with the request made by the Pentagon and President Obama. The Senate plan reduces Defense spending by 1.3 percent from the previous year and gives only a 1.6-percent pay raise to service members, which is significantly less than the House bill. The Senate also suggests cutting military manpower, which will likely force longer and more frequent deployments for those serving in uniform.  Such demand on our armed forces takes its toll: on personnel (burn-out, strain on families, on Reservists who must be away from their civilian jobs for longer durations), as well as equipment (creating the need for costly and more frequent repairs or replacement).

The military leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps have spoken with the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) urging Congress to eliminate the Defense spending caps and shelve its destabilizing habit of passing late-hour continuing resolutions, instead of detailed and on-time Defense budgets.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), SASC Chairman, delivered a scathing commentary on Congress’ inability to pass a budget for our armed forces, saying the president and both political parties should share the blame and have the “courage to put aside politics” to find a solution.  Stopgap deals like “continuing resolutions, omnibus spending bills and episodic budget agreements, are a poor substitute for actually doing our job,” said McCain.  He also stated that the military is struggling “to sustain higher operational tempo with aging equipment and depleted readiness, and doing so at the expense of modernizing to deal with the threats of tomorrow.” If the military only has enough to pay for today, it is difficult to prepare for tomorrow.

Senior military leaders agree.  Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller said Marines are meeting all current force requirements by “pushing risk and the long-term health of the force into the future.”  He has pointed out that the Corps’ list of unfunded budget priorities totals $2.6 billion, “the largest we’ve ever submitted” to Congress.  Similarly, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson outlined some of the Navy’s challenges, including the blistering pace of operations for 15 years that has strained ships, aircraft and families, and created budget uncertainty.  “Eight years of continuing resolutions, including a year of sequestration, have driven additional costs and time into just about everything that we do,” Richardson said. “The services are essentially operating in three fiscal quarters per year now.  Nobody schedules anything important in the first quarter.  The disruption this uncertainty imposes translates directly into risk for our Navy and our nation.”

Short of war, the lack of a defense budget could potentially do more damage to force readiness than any adversary can.  It’s not an easy job trying to strike a balance between the needs of the nation and the needs of the force, but without adequately trained and equipped personnel, readiness will undoubtedly suffer.  If service members lose faith in Congress’ ability and will to support them and their families, recruiting and retention will suffer. The potential for inadequate pay raises, new and increased TRICARE fees and reductions in housing allowances sends a powerful message to today’s military personnel. Finding a solution that everyone can agree on is next to impossible, but it’s Congress’ job to actively listen to the concerns of senior military leaders and commit to a plan of action that best serves the nation and its military.

Inaction is not an acceptable course.  Congress has done the bare minimum and, sadly, the CR is a prime example. A government shutdown has been narrowly avoided, yet again, and there will be plenty of accusations about who is to blame. Regardless of the outcome of the November elections, the next president will continue to face challenges in establishing a Defense spending plan. The one bright spot is that everybody can at least agree that a proper Defense budget is essential to the national security and the future prosperity of our country.

To follow these and other issues that could affect your quality of life visit the FRA Action Center at http://action.fra.org/action-center/.


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