American Legion warns military may lose most commissaries

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One of the nation’s largest veterans organizations is trying to block a potential mass closing of the military grocery stores known as commissaries, where troops can buy goods at near wholesale prices with American taxpayers picking up the tab for operational costs.

The American Legion said last week that the Defense Department has discussed trimming more than 70 percent, or $1 billion, from the Defense Commissary Agency budget, citing a report from the news site Military.com. Under that proposal, the number of stores would drop from about 250 to 24, with the only remaining locations being overseas and in rural areas, the group said.

American Legion national president Daniel Dellinger said in a statement that the cut would represent “another undeserved blow to our men and women in service,” who already took a hit to their military pensions in the budget deal that Congress passed and President Obama approved in December.

Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST - Shoppers forage for bargains at the commissary at Ft. Belvoir. Bill O’Leary/WASHINGTON POST – Shoppers forage for bargains at the commissary at Ft. Belvoir.

“Commissaries are extremely important to young military families who are just trying to make ends meet,” Dellinger said. “The costs in both fiscal and human terms would be far higher than the temporary savings realized. It’s a bad idea, plain and simple.”

The Pentagon declined to provide specifics about its budget proposals for 2014, but spokesperson Joy Crabaugh said the department is considering all cost-reduction options as a result of “an increasingly constrained budget environment.”

The Defense Department considered closing down every domestic commissary four years ago for an estimated annual savings of about $1 billion, but former defense secretary Robert Gates shot down the idea after a flood of complaints from veterans and industry groups.

MORE: Plan to shut military supermarkets shows difficulty of cutting defense spending

Rear Adm. John F. Kirby said during a news conference last week that he would not “get ahead of any provisions that may or may not be in the fiscal year ’15 budget submission,” but he added that the Pentagon has not yet closed any commissaries.

The $1.1 trillion spending bill signed by Obama this month provides $573 billion in defense appropriations in 2014, which is an increase of nearly $5 billion compared to last year under the government-wide spending cuts known as sequestration, according to a Congressional Quarterly summary.

The slight uptick this year provides limited relief, but the Pentagon will still be dealing with less funding than it is accustomed to. Annual defense spending was upward of $650 billion between 2009 and last year’s sequester, according to historical figures from the Office of Management and Budget.

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks@washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics for more federal news. E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestion.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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Josh Hicks · January 24, 2014