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Military Health Care a Target of the DoD Budget Cutters

Pentagon

How about not targeting and cutting Military Health Care? No, says Gates. War is the only sacred cow. –

By Andrea Stone

WASHINGTON  — Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ vow to shut a major military command and eliminate thousands of contractor jobs to plug a “gusher of defense spending” will do little to reduce the Pentagon budget but will prove a breeze compared with cutting military health care costs.

Military analysts, including several who met privately with Gates this week, said that the uproar from Virginia officials over the closing of the U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) in Norfolk and the firing of defense contractors in the Washington suburbs will pale next to the national umbrage expected when it’s time to tackle personnel costs.

“There are no sacred cows,” Gates told reporters. “Everybody knows that we’re being eaten alive by health care.” Noting that military health care will cost $50 billion in 2011 and will rise to $65 billion by 2015, he said, “It’s unsustainable, and therefore it has to be a part of our effort.”

Good luck with that. When Maren Leed, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, spoke with congressional staffers about cutting military benefits, they told her, “It is the hardest possible thing, just short of world peace. Both sides of the aisle agree it’s just not possible.”

Cutting benefits for service members and veterans — health care, pensions and other perks — may be the only thing more politically perilous than advocating that spending on seniors be reined in.

“While we understand DOD’s need to reduce spending, the American Legion doesn’t want it to be at the expense of our troops overseas or our veterans at home,” said the the group’s executive director, Peter Gaytan. “They have already earned health care and other benefits through their military service.”

Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said, “The political climate for even having a rational discussion about military benefits is tenuous.”

She said Congress missed an opportunity to confront soaring personnel costs when “both parties cordoned off defense” during the national health care reform debate. There were false rumors that President Barack Obama’s plan included the TRICARE system for active duty and retired military.

“It’s the political third rail,” said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. To ask military families to take on the same out-of-pocket costs as civilians or tinker with the Pentagon’s generous retirement system “would need real leadership,” he said. “Sadly, that leadership is completely absent. I can’t think of a single member on the armed services committees who would have the ethics and political courage to take this on.”

A “peace dividend” in wartime

Congress may accept the more modest proposals unveiled Monday. Calls to reduce military spending are common across the political spectrum, with liberals joining libertarians to rein in the Pentagon budget. Which is why Gates, who remembers the calls for a peace dividend after the end of the Vietnam War and the Cold War, moved on his own to slash spending even as fighting continues in Afghanistan.

“He could sense that the same trend was coming together today,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, one of a handful of defense analysts briefed Monday in a private session with Gates. “It’s not just among Democrats. Republicans made defense cuts part of their formula for cutting the deficit without raising taxes. He really is concerned he has to stay ahead of congressional sentiment.”

Yet Thompson said the initiatives don’t go far enough. They merely shift money around without reducing overall spending. “The current level of defense spending probably can’t be sustained, and Gates is pushing against the tide in terms of where the political system is headed,” which is real cuts in DOD’s budget, he said.

Reducing the size of military headquarters in Europe and whittling down the number of contractors may win bipartisan support, but Leed said liberal Democrats are likely to balk at Gates’ plan to keep hold of shifted funds rather than free them for domestic and other priorities beyond defense.

Gates said his “greatest fear is that in economic tough times people will see the defense budget as the place to solve the nation’s deficit problems.” It is not, he said. “This is not about cutting the defense budget; this is about a reallocation internally.”

He said key members of Congress had expressed support for the cuts, but he knows the best-laid plans of Cabinet secretaries are often sideswiped by political reality.

Lawmakers often “employ guerrilla tactics behind the scenes to get their way,” Leed said. Some put holds on nominees to protect defense jobs in their states. Others forge ahead on weapons programs, such as a backup engine for the F-35 fighter jet or additional C-17 cargo planes that the Pentagon doesn’t want.

At a minimum, Gates and his bean counters can expect plenty of hearings on Capitol Hill as he prepares to include the cuts in his 2012 budget proposal.

Pentagon leaders “will have to convince members of this committee that these efforts will not weaken our nation’s defense,” said Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. Like others in his party, he is suspicious about whether the savings would in fact be reinvested in the military or “harvested by congressional Democrats for new domestic spending and entitlement programs.”

Outrage in Virginia

Most of the political fallout so far emanates from Virginia, where much of the pain of the first round of cuts will be felt. The Defense Department contributed $57.4 billion, or 15.6 percent of the state’s economy, in 2008.

Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell called the closure of JFCOM and the loss of 6,000 jobs the “wrong decision” at the “worst time.” GOP Rep. Randy Forbes, whose district includes JFCOM, said its closing is the first in a string of defense cuts that will “gut the institutions that protect and defend the freedoms and liberties upon which our nation was founded.”

The state’s two Democratic senators weren’t happy, either. Mark Warner saw “no rational basis” for eliminating the command. Jim Webb, a former Marine and member of the Armed Services Committee, called it “a step backward.”

Wheeler, a longtime critic of wasteful Pentagon spending, called the reaction of Virginia officials “disgusting.” He said their message is “‘Not in my backyard.’ ‘Screw the other guy but not me.’ The classic quintessential selfishness of American politicians.”

John Ullyot, a former spokesman for the Senate Armed Services Committee when it was headed by Virginia Republican John Warner, said his old boss protected his home state from deep defense cuts but added that “regionalism and parochialism” isn’t confined to one area.

“Congress is always jealous about guarding its spending by district, and that’s been a perennial problem,” he said.

Thanks to pork barrel politics, several rounds of base closings over the past two decades were left to a special commission to decide. In announcing he would pursue a new round of closures despite legal constraints set by Congress, Gates said, “Hard is not impossible” and said he hoped lawmakers would help him shut excess facilities.

“If anyone is able to carry this off,” Ullyot said, it’s Gates. “He is in the best position of any secretary of defense in recent times to be able to make a forceful case for budget cuts. Whether his bipartisan credibility will trump the regionalism of Congress as it examines his proposal … will be a heavy lift.”

View the original article at Veterans Today

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