Oil and water: budget cuts and election years

March 21, 2012

Congress is ignoring that it has only nine months to head off sequestration and the economic “perfect storm” looming in December.

Remember, it’s an election year, which probably means a lame-duck session in December will have to pass fiscal 2013 appropriations bills wrapped in a continuing resolution, raise the debt limit, and deal with the required $1.2 trillion in debt reduction over the next 10 years — or pass some tax proposal that would replace the Dec. 31 end of all the George W. Bush tax cuts (for the middle class and the wealthy).

Wednesday’s House Republican budget proposal doesn’t help the future look any brighter. It all but ignored last year’s bipartisan agreement in the Budget Control Act, which includes defense cuts of $487 billion over the next 10 years. Instead, the GOP budget restores about $200 billion of that money, increasing President Obama’s fiscal 2013 request by $30 billion to $554 billion.

What makes the situation grim is that legislators from both parties are balking at the reductions in Obama’s fiscal 2013 Defense Department request that are part of the $487 billion, 10-year plan. If Congress can’t take the first step in these defense cuts, how will it ever hit the additional $1.2 trillion of overall reductions before sequestration on Jan. 2?

One proposed fiscal 2013 cut that has drawn the most criticism on Capitol Hill and in the country at large is the Air Force reduction for the Air National Guard. As part of its plan to save $8.7 billion over 10 years, the Air Force proposed cutting 5,500 Air National Guardsmen, with the first 5,100 in fiscal 2013. In addition, 280 Air National Guard aircraft are to be eliminated over the next five years, more than 100 of them in fiscal 2013. Some of the remaining planes would be shifted among air bases.

Under the plan, reductions are to involve Air Guard facilities in 19 states, 12 of which will lose more than 100 personnel. If ever a reduction was expected to cause an uproar in Congress and among the states in an election year, this was it.

The National Governors Association has taken a strong stand against it, as has the Senate National Guard Caucus, headed by Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). Both are on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Graham is on the Armed Services Committee. Days after the Air Guard reductions were announced, Leahy called them “dangerously premature.”

Perhaps more important for the future of the plan were the Air Guard reductions focused on Michigan, the home state of Sen. Carl Levin (D), chairman of the Armed Services panel. The biggest single cut would be to the Air National Guard unit at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, just north of Detroit. The base is scheduled to lose up to 550 military personnel, about one-third of those stationed there. The main reason: The Air Force is removing all 24 A-10 Thunderbolt II air-to-ground, close air support aircraft at the base. Also, the base’s eight KC-135 refueling tankers are to be reduced to four.

If that were not enough for Michigan, the plan also calls for retiring three C-21 cargo and passenger aircraft. Rather than replacing them with four C-27J air cargo planes at Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, the new plan calls for bringing in an MQ-9 unmanned-aircraft unit. However, the drone aircraft would not be housed at the Michigan air base. Only the pilots would operate from there. The drones, to be attached to Africa Command, would be based closer to their area of operations, according to the Air Force.

At an Armed Services panel hearing Tuesday on the Air Force’s fiscal 2013 budget, Levin described the Air Guard reductions as “a very troubling aspect of the budget proposal,” because the “force structure changes, the cuts in manpower and aircraft are falling disproportionately on the Air National Guard.” He never specifically asked about Michigan bases, limiting his questioning to getting an assurance from Air Force Secretary Michael Donley that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta would take a look at the situation.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who is in a tight reelection battle with Democrat Elizabeth Warren, took a different tack. Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts is scheduled to lose 13 full-time civilian employees and four part-time reservists in fiscal 2013, along with eight of its 15 C-5 large transport aircraft. In addition, by 2016, those eight would be upgraded to refurbished C-5Ms.

Brown defended the capability of the Westover reservists and was not satisfied with Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz’s response that “we will be able to get better utilization out of the C-5M than we did with its predecessor versions of the C-5.” Undeterred, Brown responded, “Isn’t there more value for the dollar, not only on aircraft savings, but keeping crews that are in place forward, doing a great job . . . and not to say anything about the economic impact to Massachusetts, in particular?”

Politics was also at play during the Wednesday markup at the House Budget Committee meeting. Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) said the Obama budget approach would leave the administration “cutting defense when things don’t look peaceful.” He also said defense must be left out of the reconciliation that will be needed to avoid sequestration.

Rep. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) said that Obama had made defense cuts based on political necessity rather than having it be “strategy-based,” dismissing the Defense Department strategy paper that preceded the presentation of the Pentagon budget. However, he failed to indicate what strategy guided the Republican budget.

Young concluded, taking a phrase from the preamble to the Constitution, that the “highest priority” of government is to “preserve the common defense.” That same preamble also calls for the “People of the United States” to “insure domestic Tranquility” and “promote the general Welfare” as well as “provide for the common defense.”

Let’s hope whatever Congress finally agrees to does all three.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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