Loose Canons

Chuckie Hagel’s New Horse

Budget cuts can't be at enlisted men’s expense.

By 4.14.14

UPI
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Judging by the horse he gave Defense Secretary Chuckie Hagel a couple of days ago, Mongolian Defense Minister Dashdemberel must be a very diligent student of the defense budget that Congress is now trying to craft. The horse, of course, is a gelding.

When the president announced his proposed budget and Hagel went to Congress to state the party line, I wrote that several indispensable weapon systems — the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, the A-10 Warthog attack aircraft, and half of the Navy’s 22 cruisers among them — would be retired. Under the president’s plan, military pay raises would be capped at 1% for the second straight year. Most of the fictive strategy the president brags about would have to be abandoned if the budget went through.

Because of these and other inanities in the president’s proposal, the House rejected it out of hand earlier this month by a margin of 413-2.

Now comes the hard part because Congress has to pass an authorization bill to enable the Defense Department to spend money in Fiscal 2015. That means coming up with its own defense budget in the absence of a non-risible one from the Obama administration.

It’s entirely possible that all the weapon-system cuts that the Obama administration proposed will be made, though they shouldn’t. The biggest controversy right now is about military pay and all aspects of it.

Military officers and enlisted men are paid far less than their counterparts in private industry and the federal bureaucracy. Not that they really have any counterparts in those places. Except for many of the private military contractors working for DoD or the intelligence agencies, nobody in the private sector has to put his life on the line as a normal part of his job. This might be a good time to remember that almost 7,000 service members lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and that there will be more casualties before we get out of Afghanistan (at long last).

Congress is talking about several kinds of military pay “reforms.” Let’s start with the simplest and most objectionable.

A huge controversy blew up last week when Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Michael Bennett told the Senate Armed Services Committee that reducing the military pay raise would increase discipline, lead to better spending habits and less waste. He said, “We’ve never had it so good. If we don’t get ahold of slowing the growth, we will become an entitlement-based, a health care provider-based Corps, and not a war fighting organization.” Bennett’s comment was in the context of raising military pay 2% or 1% and making other cuts to military benefits.

To be fair to the facts, the context includes a lot more. As SMMC, Bennett’s job is to be the enlisted men’s voice in the command structure. There’s no excuse for what he said when — according to a CNN report — there is 30% unemployment among the spouses of young military members, when (in 2011) there were 5,000 military members and families on food stamps. According to that same report, almost $104 million in food stamps were spent at military commissaries in 2013.

Military commissaries are subsidized grocery stores. They provide significant discounts on food from the prices military members would otherwise pay in regular grocery stores. And the subsidies they get are another target of the budget cutters. If a 22-year-old enlisted Marine has a wife and two kids, they will be living off-base. Which means that they have to get by on his base salary ($2,035/month for an E-3 with three-years’ service) and subsistence allowance (of $357 a month). That’s less than $29,000 per year, which is about $5,000 over the federal poverty level. Cutting the commissaries’ subsidies will push a lot more enlisted families onto food stamps.

What Bennett said was wrong on a very fundamental level. The troops aren’t stupid. They realize that they are severely underpaid. The average federal bureaucrat makes $76,000 a year for doing almost nothing of value and at no personal risk. About 470,000 bureaucrats make over $100,000 a year. To tell an enlisted kid that he’s going to get a 1% pay raise when the bureaucracy is making so much without having to risk anything is a huge de-motivator.

Officers aren’t making a bundle either. Just ask any captain in the Marines or Air Force or Army how hard it is to raise a family on his pay. Ask his wife how many times they’ve had to move in his time in service and how hard it is to deal with kids’ schools and trying to get a job in that environment. Yet they do it, mostly without complaint.

It’s a cliché to say the Marines and all the other service members aren’t sticking their necks out for the pay. That’s true as is their knowledge that they’re a cut above most of the society they’re sworn to defend. They serve for a lot of reasons, including honor, pride, and family tradition. But telling them they’ve got it so good that their leaders don’t need to worry about their pay is a highly negative message that will make many of the soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen think about whether they should re-enlist.

It is truly disgusting — to the troops as well as to us — that there is no sacrifice being demanded of the bureaucrats. There are about 2.7 million of them now employed by the feds. There are only about 1.2 million active duty military members, which make the proposed military pay and benefit cuts even more disproportionate. If Congress wants to cut someone’s pay or jobs, why not start with the bureaucracy? The simple reason is that they represent an ever-expanding Democratic voting bloc.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the Augean Stable that is the federal civil service is the place to cut jobs, pay, and retirement benefits. It won’t happen under this president or any other Dem.

One form of military pay is the retirement payments service members are entitled to receive upon twenty years’ service. That comes along with healthcare benefits, usually in the form of “Tricare” insurance coverage.

Retired members are entitled — as in having earned it with blood, sweat, and injuries — to their retirement benefits. Any thought of decreasing them should be rejected with one exception. A minor increase in co-payments under Tricare isn’t going to hurt anyone. Otherwise, military retirement is a real entitlement: it was earned through personal sacrifice. It should not be tinkered with.

In the post-Vietnam era, our military shrank. It was derided by the elites, degraded as something less than honorable as a career. In the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, we must not let that happen again.

We’ve heard a lot of baloney since 9/11 about how everyone respects and reveres our troops. The Democrats lay it on really thick. This time, it’s going to take more than words to prove that we are grateful to those who are serving.

What Congress decides will tell us a lot about ourselves and about who we really are as Americans. There are hundreds of billions of dollars that should be cut from the federal budget. If you want to see how, check out Sen. Tom Coburn’s “Back in Black” plan from 2011.

Congress must not put the burden of President Obama’s bizarre spending spree on the backs of our enlisted men, retirees, or anyone else who is or was in the business of risking his life to defend to our nation. Period.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.