Rep. Hoyer criticized President Obama's decision to freeze federal employee pay raises as a deficit cutting measure with an exemption for military members. Hoyer said the pay freeze should include military members not serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. You won't hear me say this often but I am in agreement with Rep. Hoyer and further below, with Rep. Barney Frank.
For too long, our Congress has looked at the DoD budget and service member compensation as third-rail issues. Both houses and both parties have spent the better part of ten years competing to raise military pay and compensation even against the DoD's recommendations. Neither party, especially the Democrats, want to look weak on defense or alienate themselves from military veterans, their families, or their supporters. Politically, Sept 11th, 2001 put the military community into play as a special constituency that is something akin to AARP or the Israel lobby, an untouchable group that neither party wishes to offend.
I haven't been in the military for a long time but a dangerous trend I've seen in my 10 years is a complete lack of accountability or sense of stewardship when it comes to our budget, really taxpayer dollars. It pervades everything we do and I am just as guilty as the next guy. Once I had three helicopters fill up with fuel only to take off and immediately dump 15,000lbs of fuel into the Iraqi desert because I miscalculated how long we would have to wait to return to a target and pick up a special forces team. That at least was an unintentional, albeit expensive, mistake.
Two weeks ago I received an email from the Pentagon. Supposedly having spent two years in Chile I am now an expert on Latin America and will be called upon to use said expertise in the future. The email informed me that all regional experts were going to receive an iPod Touch to help us maintain our language skills. The division had concluded that iPads were too expensive and not worth the extra cost so they were going with iPod Touches. I could not believe what I was reading. Why in the hell were they going to send hundreds of officers a free iPod when they could just take part of their $80,000 per year salary (plus benefits) and buy their own? Or how many already own an iPod or iPhone and do not even need one? Aside from all the issues of monitoring...how can I look the Forgotten Man in the eye and tell him that along with Oakley sunglasses, expanded education benefits, a life-long pension, pilot bonus and a decent salary, that I need him to buy me an iPod also?
Don't get me wrong, the large increase in the DoD budget after 9-11 was necessary. Our Defense Department needed to rapidly transform our organizations, update training courses, and reallocate our resources to fight a new type of war. A lot of up-front money was needed to do that and erring on the side of excess was probably a better hedge than erring the other way. Compensation was adjusted to ensure that recruitment would stay high even in the face of (then) present and future sacrifices. However the spigot has been on for too long. Cuts must be made and they should either be surgical and decided on by the services or be a straight percentage cut to let the military figure out how to do more with less.
The purpose of an all volunteer military is to provide a more professional and potent war capability than a conscripted service. I have no doubt that this has been accomplished to a higher degree than thought possible when the draft was abolished in 1973. However there is a downside to a volunteer system. I like getting raises like anyone else but the problem is that raises are not targeted to individuals. Everyone gets a raise or nobody gets a raise. Every time we increase compensation, by base pay, housing allowance, educational benefits, etc.. it raises the marginal cost of each and every military member today and in the future. Again, I love more money in my pocket but I know that taxpayers and China have to foot the bill. In the face of large and growing deficits, a weak economy, and unfunded entitlements it is worth remembering that our military strength stems from our economic strength not the other way around. In September 2009, Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute wrote a piece in Armed Forces Journal called "The people problem" detailing what I just outlined.
More broadly, the Cato Institute hosted a very interesting forum called "Deficits and Defense" to discuss how to approach the defense budget as part of the deficit reduction that is taking place on the Hill and in the White House. Barney Frank made a lot of good points especially regarding our costly and large presence in Europe. Why does the United States need to continue to subsidize (really provide) defense to the European Union? We've allowed them to shirk their responsibility to defend themselves. Loren Thompson's strongest point is that politicians are going to go after the big ticket items like Joint Strike Fighter, Submarines, Combat Vehicles, and a joint radio system that are desperately needed today and in the near future. The hidden costs of canceling these programs will be great but much more politically feasible than base closures or telling some of our world-wide allies that they'll have to cough up dough or do defense on their own.
God bless Sec Gates for seeing this coming down the road. Even though the cuts will be necessary, its still going to hurt. Hopefully they'll cut fat and iPods instead of muscle.