By Walter Pincus
The Washington Post
The sequester may turn out to be a good thing, at least when it comes to some Pentagon programs.
It is forcing the military services to make hard choices they have avoided even thinking about while the money freely flowed to the Defense Department.
The United States was at war and whatever programs the services called necessary got funded, with few questions and little oversight. Pentagon spending on the Afghan and Iraq wars totaled about $1.3 trillion, while an additional $5.2 trillion paid for Defense's "base budget."
In 2001, the base budget was supposed to support two wars, but the George W. Bush White House set up supplemental appropriations for the fighting, a practice followed when President Barack Obama took office. Still, the base budget rose about $10 billion or more most years from 2002 to 2012.
Billions of dollars were wasted on unsuccessful procurement programs and other overruns for ships, aircraft and other weapons systems, and space vehicles. And some good programs were begun, costing tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars that produced marginal results or are now just unaffordable.
Military rethinking about some personnel and family-related programs came up Wednesday at a hearing before a House Armed Services sub-committee on military personnel. The topic: fiscal 2013 continuing resolution and sequestration.
Take the military services' program to offer tuition assistance to active service and National Guard personnel for courses during off-duty hours. On March 5, Defense Comptroller Robert Hale asked the services to "consider significant reductions in funding new tuition assistance applicants . . . for the duration of the current fiscal situation."
With more than $500 million a year, the Army, Air Force and Marines, plus the National Guard, pay tuition of up to $250 a semester hour, and up to $4,500 a year for an individual's off-duty studies. The Navy limit is $4,000.
It's been a popular program.
Army Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg told the panel his service had stopped new applications, having spent $200 million so far in fiscal 2013. The Army had $383 million budgeted.
In the future, Bromberg added, "I think we can probably take at least $115 million in savings in this program and still turn some back on, but probably not to the same extent that we have it today."
Lt. Gen. Darrell Jones, Air Force deputy chief of staff for manpower, said the service had about 115,000 participants. The program was cut off before it used up this year's $198 million.
"We're going to re-evaluate it" for next year, Jones said, but adding, "realistically we're going to have to adjust the program to lessen the budgetary impact on our Air Force."
Others have begun to lobby.
Wallace Boston, president of American Public Education, whose company has just reported that 37 percent of its students are from the military, said in a statement that his firm wants "to make sure that you are aware of the other options you have for financing your education so that you can make a decision that is right for you and your family."
He added that he would "join the ranks of those lobbying to reinstate the benefits to which you are entitled."
Jones said his service is also reviewing studies done last year to determine the future "right size" for Air Force Lodging. The 88 Air Force Inns at 95 operating locations — with 30,000 visiting quarters and 3,500 temporary living facilities — are maintained primarily for active-duty military. They are mainly for personnel on temporary duty or families involved in a permanent change of stations. Many are in what would be considered resort areas.
As Jones said, "The capability for military members and retirees to stay in lodging on a space-available basis while traveling on personal business or vacation has long been recognized as a satisfying benefit to both the traveler and Air Force Lodging." But: "It is clear that sequestration and the reduction in travel will affect our lodging operations."
Other family programs are also being reviewed, although military services said they are sensitive to easing the stress of sequestration.
Bromberg's prepared statement outlined the range of such programs: "spouse employment and employment readiness support for the Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) Act initiatives; support to new spouses such as Army Family Team Building; . . . [and] family intervention programs such as New Parent Support Home Visitation and other Family Advocacy programs that prevent domestic violence."
Defense's public affairs activities have also taken a sequester blow.
Comptroller Hale has said "all aerial demonstrations, including flyovers, jump team demonstrations and participation in civilian air shows and military open houses" will end April 1. Only where sponsors reimburse incremental costs, which the military can legally accept, will they participate in civilian air shows, parades and civic events.
And military bands and ceremonial units will no longer travel outside their local areas except when "all transportation, lodging, and subsistence are provided by the requesting organization."
The bands "may continue to perform locally, both on and off military installations, as long as those performances can be conducted at no cost to the department," Hale said.