Lawmakers greeted the White House’s $526.6 billion defense budget request with skepticism Thursday, as top Pentagon officials defended proposals previously rejected by Congress, such as base closures and increasing health care enrollment fees.
Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted that fierce political resistance killed those proposals last year but added that times have changed.
“We are now in a different fiscal environment dealing with new realities that will force us to more fully confront these tough, painful choices and to make the reforms we need to put this department on a path to sustain our military strength through the 21st century,” Mr. Hagel said.
He acknowledged that closing military bases via the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) procedure is an “imperfect process” and initially would cost $2.4 billion. But he added that procedure would begin saving money in 2018.
Rep. Joe Courtney, Connecticut Democrat, pointed out that the Pentagon has yet to see net saving from the 2005 round of base closures.
“As someone who has spent seven years on the readiness subcommittee dealing with the 2005 budget BRAC which is not going to generate a penny of net savings for 13 years no prior BRAC has been able to do that in less than six years,” Mr. Courtney said. “For a lot of us who’ve spent a lot of time on this issue, that just doesn’t work.”
“We don’t intend BRAC 2015 to repeat BRAC 2005,” Mr. Hale told the committee. “This is going to be a more classic realignment and closure round.”
The defense budget request’s call for increasing enrollment fees for military health care, known as Tricare, also drew congressional scrutiny.
“Today, military retirees contribute less than 11 percent of their total health care costs, compared to an average of 27 percent when Tricare was first fully implemented in 1996,” Mr. Hagel told lawmakers.
But Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, pushed back against the budget’s proposal.
“And my concern is that we know this is a great program, Tricare. People are very satisfied. Military families appreciate this benefit. Commitments have been made to our veterans and to military families. Why would we be increasing the fees when, in fact, the program is working well?” Mr. Wilson said.
Mr. Hale replied that increasing enrollment fees would save about $1 billion. “If we don’t do that, we will have to take that money out of readiness or modernization,” he said.
Many of the budget request’s proposed cost-saving measures would not begin until 2018, officials said, giving the Pentagon time to implement reforms.
Lawmakers expressed concern that the budget request does not factor in the possibility of $500 billion in defense spending cuts over the next decade imposed by the Budget Control Act, known as “sequestration.” If the cuts remain, the Pentagon would have to cut its budget by $52 billion next year.