THE HOUSE Armed Services Committee has completed action on the fiscal 2015 defense budget, and what it has produced is a triumph for the status quo. Contrary to President Obama’s requests, the committee voted to preserve the A-10 Warthog close-air support plane, as well as a nuclear aircraft carrier the Pentagon thought it could do without. It also approved a 1.8 percent pay increase for most military personnel, instead of 1 percent as the administration proposed. Committee chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) was pretty candid about this: “My underlying goal . . . is to hold onto as much of the stuff and as much of the training as we can,” he said, according to Reuters, in the hope that “some miracle happens and we get money . . . next year that we don’t have now.”
We’re no fans of the Obama budget, which also relies on too much wishful thinking, both strategic and fiscal. Still, it forthrightly addressed the need to control personnel costs, and the unwillingness of House Republicans to move toward the administration’s position on that issue is disappointing. Obviously it’s a politically sensitive point, for good reasons — the need to recruit and retain top personnel — and not-so-good reasons — the need to keep military constituents happy. On balance, however, the case for limiting pay increases is strong in light of two facts: Compensation accounts for half of the defense budget, and total military pay and benefit growth outpaced that of the private sector by 40 percent between 2001 and 2012, according to the Pentagon. No one’s proposing to cut pay, just slow its rate of increase.
The House committee also refused to limit subsidies for military supermarkets, housing allowances or the Tricare health-care system – even though those and other savings, including additional base closures, are backed by the nation’s military leaders. The Joint Chiefs of Staff appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday to voice their unanimous support for a more realistic approach to personnel costs. “We’re seeking $31 billion in savings in pay compensation and health care over the future-year defense program,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said. “If we don’t get it, we’ll have to take $31 billion out of readiness, modernization and force structure over that same period.”
In defense spending, as in other areas of the federal budget, these are times of hard but necessary choices. Given the House’s apparent direction, it appears that if anyone is going to make those choices, it will have to be the Senate.