Citing the Persian Gulf crisis, the White House said yesterday that President Bush would exempt some or all military personnel from the automatic spending cuts that will take effect Oct. 15 if the administration and Congress fail to agree on a plan to reduce the budget deficit.
But administration sources said that the president was inclined to exempt uniformed personnel from the automatic spending cuts even before the gulf crisis.
Under the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction law, Bush must decide before Wednesday whether to exempt military personnel from "sequestration," the term used for the automatic spending cuts that take effect if lawmakers fail to come up with a budget that meets the fiscal 1991 deficit target of $64 billion. According to the Office of Management and Budget, the automatic cuts would compel the firing of up to a million people, or about half the armed forces.
But the exemption of military personnel from the spending cuts would increase the size of spending cuts in other parts of the defense budget. If the government lays off soldiers, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law would force a 25.1 percent reduction across most military spending, according to OMB's mid-session review of the budget. But if military personnel are exempted from the automatic cuts, the reductions in other parts of the Pentagon budget would rise to 41.3 percent, OMB said.
The OMB estimates, released July 16 prior to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, warned that automatic spending cuts could reduce by half the flying time for Air Force pilots and the steaming time for deployed Navy fleets. They would also reduce the president's "flexibility to deploy forces where needed," according to OMB.
Concern over the budget deficit has sent administration officials scrambling for estimates of how much it will cost to send American troops to the Persian Gulf to defend Saudi Arabia, but so far there aren't any reliable estimates.
But administration officials, congressional staff aides and independent military analysts interviewed yesterday said that sending troops to the Middle East would not cost much more than ordinary military exercises.
"We normally fire the bullets, we just normally fire them into haystacks," said one official. He noted that last year the administration did not ask Congress for any supplemental appropriation despite the invasion of Panama. A congressional aide involved in defense issues said that "Navy ships will steam around the Persian Gulf some more and ships in Norfolk and San Diego will sail a little less."
The Persian Gulf exercise "doesn't cost us a lot more than we have already budgeted," said Gordon Adams, director of the Defense Budget Project, an independent group. He said the troops were already on duty and scheduled for maneuvers. He said that the extra costs would be for additional fuel, temporary relocation of troops, and, perhaps, for combat pay.
Adams said that in the absence of full-scale combat, it would cost $1 billion to $3 billion to keep a large U.S. force in the Persian Gulf for six months, a relative drop in the vast ocean of national debt. But Adams emphasized that all estimates are uncertain, especially since it isn't clear how the tension with Iraq will be resolved.
A year ago, Bush did not exempt military personnel from the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings cuts. Later, after the automatic cuts took effect and resulted in bigger than expected cuts in personnel, the administration went back to Congress to get funds transferred from one part of the budget to cover military pay. The tough fight the administration had with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) over that transfer led many administration officials to conclude that they should exempt at least some military personnel from the outset of the process.
Relatively small percentages of spending cuts force large numbers of personnel layoffs because the military must pay severance to many of those released.