Senators cancel reductions to Air National Guard, cut DoD civilians

Friday - 5/25/2012, 5:17am EDT

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Senate Armed Services Committee wrapped up two-days of debate on next year's Defense authorization bill Thursday, rejecting several of the Pentagon's proposals to save cash, including a downsizing of the Air National Guard.

Under the budget plans the Pentagon rolled out early this year, the Air National Guard would have borne a heavy brunt of the overall manpower reductions the Air Force planned to make over the next five years, accounting for about half of the service's total downsizing. During the closed-door markup session, that proposal received a considerable amount of attention, said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the committee's chairman.

"There's a broad feeling in the committee that the Air Force did not have a basis that was solid for where they were making these reductions," Levin told reporters Thursday afternoon. "Many of us sought information as the basis in the particular states we represent, and we didn't get anything back that was the least bit convincing."

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.)

Levin said senators felt the Air National Guard reductions were out of proportion with cutbacks the service proposed in its other components. The DoD budget plan called for an overall decrease of 9,900 airmen over the next five years, including 3,900 active duty personnel and 900 members of the Air Force reserve. The Air National Guard meanwhile would have drawn down by 5,100.

The Senate's $631 billion defense authorization bill would put the Air Guard cuts on hold for at least another year and appoint an outside commission to study the appropriate balance between active, reserve and Guard personnel.

"The [Air Force] can come back after that if they want to come back with a much better case that has a foundation in fact and also has some proportionality to it," Levin said.

Air National Guard would stay funded at 2012 levels

The commission, Levin said, would invite input from the nation's governors, who had lobbied hard against the cutbacks and complained they were not consulted during DoD's budget process.

The Senate action is similar to the House-passed Defense authorization bill, which would keep Air National Guard funding in 2013 at 2012 levels. The House passed its version earlier this month.

The unanimous Senate Armed Services vote came a day after the director of the Air National Guard, Lt. Gen. Harry M. "Bud" Wyatt III, told the Senate Appropriations Committee that he, too, had been asking to see justifications for the tilt in reductions toward the Air Guard.

"Have you seen that sort of analysis?" Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) asked.

"No sir, I have not," Wyatt said. "And as important as the answer and the conclusion is, the initial methodology and the going-in assumptions, that's the thing that concerns me. Not only not seeing that analysis, but also how we got to that analysis."

Lt. Gen. Harry M. "Bud" Wyatt III

Guard advocates argued that service members in the reserve components of the military cost the government far less than active duty forces. When the Air Force announced the cuts in its budget rollout, leaders said their rationale for focusing on the guard was that the Air Force already had drawn down active duty service members over the past several years, and the Guard now needed to shrink to balance those cuts.

But even if Guard supporters in Congress succeed in blocking the cuts, DoD's proposal has already had a negative impact, Wyatt said.

"Where I'm starting to see some stress on our folks is in our retention numbers," he said. "We have great volunteerism and our folks stick with us for a long time, but our retention numbers are beginning to drop, and I attribute that to the Air Force's [2013 budget proposal]. It has had a more detrimental effect on our retention than 20 years of high operational combat. I think that uncertainty is beginning to take a toll on people. They're wondering about their futures and whether they have time to invest in a unit that might not be here next year or changing to a mission that they don't know what that might be."

Contractor's pay capped

While the Senate conducts its Defense markups in secret and the full details of the bill they passed weren't immediately available, Levin and the committee's ranking member, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), detailed some of the provisions in a brief news conference.

Among the bill's provisions is a limitation on reimbursements for executive salaries for federal contractors. The proposal, which has been criticized as "naïve" by the government contracting industry, would cap reimbursements at $237,000.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

Also, McCain said the legislation would save $5 billion by ordering a 5 percent reduction in spending on both civilian DoD employees and service contractors over the next five years.

"We're scheduled to reduce the Army by some 100,000 men and women. We're reducing the size of the Marine Corps by some 80,000. But [DoD] made no provision for any reduction in the civilian workforce, which has grown some 16 percent since 2007," he said.

TRICARE will not be increased

Like the House, the Senate version of the Defense bill would reject DoD's proposal to rein in health care costs by imposing health care premium increases on military retirees in the TRICARE system. Unlike the House, though, the Senate kept its authorized top-line spending in line with what the White House proposed for next year, setting up a potential showdown with lawmakers from the other chamber. The House version would spend about $4 billion more, though both versions are above the caps set in last year's Budget Control Act.

While the final number matches the administration's proposal for Defense spending, Levin said senators made approximately 150 changes to the package.

The legislation also looks ahead to the likelihood of sequestration, asking the Pentagon for a detailed report on the impact of the reductions. Top DoD officials have previously said they are not making detailed plans for the effects the automatic cuts would have on military operations.

Overall, the bill authorizes money for weapons, ships, aircraft and a 1.7 percent pay raise for military personnel.

This story is part of Federal News Radio's daily DoD Report. For more defense news, click here.

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