Will the House drum up support to cut spending on military bands?

July 6, 2011

Defense budget-cutting will be tested on the House floor with an attempt to cut $120 million from roughly $320 million set aside for military bands that is tucked inside the Pentagon’s base budget for fiscal 2012.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) got the House Appropriations Committee last month to limit spending on military bands to $200 million. But because the cap would allow the money to be repurposed for other military programs, McCollum now wants to cut that $120 million from the overall $530 billion Defense Department budget.

In Wednesday’s debate on the provision, McCollum called attention to cuts being made in education, health care and music in public schools while spending on military bands is growing. According to Defense Department figures provided to McCollum, the 154 service bands cost $297 million in fiscal 2009 and that figure grew to an estimated $320 million in the current year.

“What is the right note to hit in military bands?” she asked.

Interest in military bands increased two years ago after then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, concerned by the State Department’s lack of funds, noted that more money was spent on military bands than on Foreign Service officers.

Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.) on Wednesday offered an amendment to remove the $200 million limitation for the bands. Although it passed on a voice vote, the $200 million cap is already in the fiscal 2012 Defense Authorization Bill that passed the House. Thus the key moment will come when the House takes up McCollum’s amendment to cut $120 million from the overall Defense Appropriations measure.

Carter, in a joint letter with his House Army Caucus co-chairman, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), called the reductions “highly detrimental to our armed forces” because they “uphold pride and morale through music at funerals, welcome-home celebrations, concerts, ceremonies and other espirit-de-corps events.”

The main service bands are well known here: the U.S. Marine Corps Band, “the President’s Own,” plays at White House functions; there is also the U.S. Army Band (Pershing’s Own), the U.S. Air Force Band and the U.S. Navy Band.

Each service band has smaller instrumental and singing groups such as the Marine Chamber Orchestra; the U.S. Army Chorus; the Air Force’s Singing Sergeants; and the Navy Band Sea Chanters. The groups record albums, often in their own studios, and distribute them for free because it’s illegal to sell the music.

Unlike most state and private universities and colleges, the members of the U.S. Military, Naval and Air Force academy bands are professional musicians. Only the Merchant Marine Academy Band members are students, and their costs are covered by private contributions.

Military musicians generally have advanced music degrees and are required to audition; they also face different demands. Some going into the top service bands do not go through basic training or draw duties usually performed by other personnel.

In their letter, Carter and Reyes say band members are “primarily trained to contribute to defense in a wide range of combat tasks, such as providing security as military police.” That is true for band personnel serving overseas and outside Washington, but not for all.

In an answer to a question from McCollum’s office, the Navy said that while band enlistees attend boot camp, “Navy musicians typically spend less than 1 percent of their time in combat-related training, with only a small percentage of band personnel being assigned auxiliary security force duty.”

Although most services also have bands that are stationed overseas, the Washington-based bands often go abroad. For example, the Air Force Band went to Japan last summer even though there already is a unit of the USAF Band of the Pacific stationed in Japan.

Beyond Washington, however, military bands are spread throughout commands. The Army, for example, has prided itself as the largest employer of musicians, having about 4,000 personnel in regional bands along with those representing the National Guard and the Army Reserve. There are 32 active bands in the Army, 51 in the Army National Guard and 17 in the Army Reserve, according to information provided to McCollum. The Air Force has 24 bands and the Navy and Marine Corps each have 14.

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