Issue Date: June 30, 2003
Nothing but lip service
In recent months, President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress have missed no opportunity to heap richly deserved praise on the military. But talk is cheap — and getting cheaper by the day, judging from the nickel-and-dime treatment the troops are getting lately.
For example, the White House griped that various pay-and-benefits incentives added to the 2004 defense budget by Congress are wasteful and unnecessary — including a modest proposal to double the $6,000 gratuity paid to families of troops who die on active duty. This comes at a time when Americans continue to die in Iraq at a rate of about one a day.
Similarly, the administration announced that on Oct. 1 it wants to roll back recent modest increases in monthly imminent-danger pay (from $225 to $150) and family-separation allowance (from $250 to $100) for troops getting shot at in combat zones.
Then there's military tax relief — or the lack thereof. As Bush and Republican leaders in Congress preach the mantra of tax cuts, they can't seem to find time to make progress on minor tax provisions that would be a boon to military homeowners, reservists who travel long distances for training and parents deployed to combat zones, among others.
Incredibly, one of those tax provisions — easing residency rules for service members to qualify for capital-gains exemptions when selling a home — has been a homeless orphan in the corridors of power for more than five years now.
The chintz even extends to basic pay. While Bush's proposed 2004 defense budget would continue higher targeted raises for some ranks, he also proposed capping raises for E-1s, E-2s and O-1s at 2 percent, well below the average raise of 4.1 percent.
The Senate version of the defense bill rejects that idea, and would provide minimum 3.7 percent raises for all and higher targeted hikes for some. But the House version of the bill goes along with Bush, making this an issue still to be hashed out in upcoming negotiations.
All of which brings us to the latest indignity — Bush's $9.2 billion military construction request for 2004, which was set a full $1.5 billion below this year's budget on the expectation that Congress, as has become tradition in recent years, would add funding as it drafted the construction appropriations bill.
But Bush's tax cuts have left little elbow room in the 2004 federal budget that is taking shape, and the squeeze is on across the board.
The result: Not only has the House Appropriations military construction panel accepted Bush's proposed $1.5 billion cut, it voted to reduce construction spending by an additional $41 million next year.
Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, took a stab at restoring $1 billion of the $1.5 billion cut in Bush's construction budget. He proposed to cover that cost by trimming recent tax cuts for the roughly 200,000 Americans who earn more than $1 million a year. Instead of a tax break of $88,300, they would receive $83,500.
The Republican majority on the construction appropriations panel quickly shot Obey down. And so the outlook for making progress next year in tackling the huge backlog of work that needs to be done on crumbling military housing and other facilities is bleak at best.
Taken piecemeal, all these corner-cutting moves might be viewed as mere flesh wounds. But even flesh wounds are fatal if you suffer enough of them. It adds up to a troubling pattern that eventually will hurt morale — especially if the current breakneck operations tempo also rolls on unchecked and the tense situations in Iraq and Afghanistan do not ease.
Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, who notes that the House passed a resolution in March pledging "unequivocal support" to service members and their families, puts it this way: "American military men and women don't deserve to be saluted with our words and insulted by our actions."
Translation: Money talks — and we all know what walks.