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GOP chairman on cutting future troops' benefits: 'I think that is a place we can go'

Sep. 14, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
House Armed Services Committee Holds Hearing On Ar
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., speaks during a 2011 hearing before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee in Washington. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
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A key Republican subcommittee chairman is ready to accept pay and benefits cuts for future service members, but he won’t support base closing or significant force structure cuts.

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., who oversees about 40 percent of the defense budget in his role as chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness, said he’s convinced after talking with defense and service leaders that compensation-related military personnel costs need to be reduced to protect other programs.

In an interview taped for the C-SPAN Newsmakers program, which is televised on Sunday, Wittman wouldn’t support base closing, although defense officials have pleaded with Congress to allow them to reduce a base infrastructure that is 20 percent in excess of requirements. “I have never said it is an ‘absolutely no’ to BRAC any time in the future,” Wittman said, referring to the base closing and realignment commission process, but base closing has upfront costs that would take away money for current needs, and he doesn’t think the services are yet set on long-term basing needs while force structure changes remain in flux. “Until those other uncertainties are dealt with, I just don’t think it is a good time to do that,” he said.

On pay and benefits cuts, Wittman said he would not favor reductions that applied to currently serving people. “I think we have a moral commitment as a nation to say this is the agreement, while not legal but I think a moral agreement, under which you came into the services, and I think we need to stand by that.”

If benefits are cut for current troops, any savings could be offset by higher turnover as career service members leave and potential recruits decide not to enlist because of concern the government doesn’t keep commitments, he said.

He’s willing, though, to consider change in pay, health care and retirement for people who have not yet started military service. “I think that is a place we can go,” he said. “I am very much in favor of this discussion.”

Asked if he considered current benefits overly generous, Wittman replied: “I think it generous. I think it is fair for what our men and women have been asked to do.” Asked if he thought future service members would be any less dedicated, Wittman said he did not but, he believed it was fair to provide less generous benefits as long as the future members and their families understood the compensation package they were getting.

Wittman believes cuts in the number of active and civilian personnel don’t have to take place if defense hawks can sell fellow lawmakers on the national security risk of cuts. “We are trying to boil it down to tell them what we cannot do if these cuts continue,” he said. “I know there is an increased sense of urgency among all members of the House Armed Services Committee.”

Some members of Congress are unconvinced, he admitted. “For some, they look at it in a bigger perspective and say, ‘Well, the true threat to national security is the deficit and the debt.’”

Reductions in personnel, civilian and military, result “in a number of missions that cannot be done,” he said.

“I think they can be avoided,” Wittman said of such reductions. “I don’t believe that is the way to go about managing the defense budget.”

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