- The Washington Times - Friday, December 15, 2000

Final slap

The Clinton administration is preparing its parting shot at the U.S. military: shortchanging a promised pay raise for troops.
With some soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors living on food stamps, the new defense-authorization act signed by the president in October directs the Pentagon to give personnel a total pay increase of 4.2 percent a 3.7 percent boost in pay and an additional 0.5 percent rise in other benefits.
Well, the bean counters at the Office of Management and Budget and in the Pentagon's budget shop now are proposing a total 3.2 percent increase, we are told.
The reason: the budget writers are demanding that each military service make up the 1 percent difference from their own budgets, which are already tight, by cutting funds for operations and maintenance or weapons programs.
"This is their goodbye present," one unhappy official familiar with the budget plan.
The stealth pay cut contradicts President Clinton's support for the pay boost made in a signing statement issued Oct. 30. Mr. Clinton said the increase would begin "to address the concern the Congress and I share with regard to service members."

Military votes

Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican, is criticizing Senate Democrats for holding up his bill to allow polling places on domestic military bases. His efforts are attracting return fire from Democrats and some military people for his opposition each year to the Military Voting Rights Act inserted in the defense-authorization bill.
Sponsored by Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, the act would prohibit states from withdrawing residency rights from service members away on orders. It would also reinforce a federal mandate to states to accept overseas military ballots.
Mr. Thomas tells us it is not inconsistent for him to back his own military-voting bill, while opposing another.
Said the congressman, "When you look at [Mr. Gramm's measure] you find it kind of interesting what they want out of federal law is for example, proposed rules on accepting absentee ballots. Every state already does that… . The vast majority in the House and Senate agree with me. What this would be is a federal intervention in elections that has never been done before."
The Senate and House Armed Services committees plan hearings next year on the Pentagon's system of collecting and delivering absentee ballots overseas. In Florida, Democratic Party attorneys challenged scores of ballots on grounds they lacked a postmark, a requirement in some states for the ballot to count as a legal vote. The Pentagon later said many envelops miss getting stamped because of postage-free delivery.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen ordered the inspector general's office to review the entire process and make recommendations.
"What we need to do is focus on just what are the mechanics for making sure our men and women in uniform get to vote and are ballots timely collected and put in the appropriate jurisdiction?"
Rep. Steve Buyer, Indiana Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel, sent colleagues a memo after investigating ballot handling in Florida. He said he determined that election boards threw out an unspecified number of absentee ballots for lack of a postmark, despite a superceding 1986 federal law that says the ballots did not need one.
In fact, Mr. Buyer's research showed that, under one section of Florida administrative rules, ballots with either a postmark, or a signature and date, can be accepted by canvassing boards for a federal election.
"Federal law does not require that overseas ballots be postmarked," Mr. Buyer said. "The Department of Defense regulations do require a postmark, but as is well known by anyone who has served in the military, it is not practical to expect all military and diplomatic mail to be postmarked."

The Bill Cohen show

The glittery $295,000 party thrown recently in Hollywood by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and his wife, Janet, is raising concerns inside the Pentagon that the military is being misused by the Clinton administration for more than just peacekeeping.
The word from some in the building is that Mrs. Cohen, a former television reporter, pushed for the party because she is angling to replace Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti as the movie industry's top lobbyist sometime in the future.
Pentagon officials tell us the party, held to generate support for the military among entertainers, is only one example. The latest worry is Mr. Cohen's decision to turn over the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman, the only flattop currently deployed in the Mediterranean, to the jocular Fox Sports television broadcast team this weekend.
"They have to shut down operations for three days, all for some TV show," said one official. He said putting the carrier out of action is causing some national-security concerns.
Mr. Cohen decided earlier this year to overrule the Navy after the sea service balked at allowing a recreational vehicle show at the Naval Air Station in Brunswick, Maine.
Mr. Cohen acted on an appeal from Maine Gov. Angus King, a personal friend of the defense secretary's.
The Navy said no to the event under rules that prohibit holding nonmilitary events on bases.
As for disrupting operations, the RV show clearly did just that. Aviators and support personnel had to drive three hours by car to the temporary base near Bangor, where a squadron of jets was relocated for the duration of the show. Maintenance crews were forced to fix planes without shelter, in one case repairing a jet engine in pouring rain.

Intercepts

Publicists for HarperCollins spent last week making frantic telephone calls to defense reporters around town warning them about a manuscript they distributed. The book, by Time magazine reporter Douglas C. Waller, contained unspecified "errors." It then delivered a corrected manuscript on the book about the reporter's three months aboard a nuclear submarine.
The Army inspector general has stung the Army Corps of Engineers for doctoring data used to justify water projects on the Mississippi River. But congressional aides are predicting Army Secretary Louis Caldera will not capitalize on the Corps' vulnerability by exercising a series of reforms he proposed to rein in the agency's independence.
The reason: Congressional aides have warned the Army that if the Corps' decision-making is put in the hands of Army political appointees, then Congress will cut off funds for the service's cherished 10-year transformation plan.
"Transformation will go up in smoke," one senior military staffer told us."

• Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are syndicated columnists. Mr. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at gertz@twtmail.com. Mr. Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at scarbo@twtmail.com.

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