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At defense forum, Reps. Smith and Heck give ‘depressing’ outlook on military budgets

Rep. Denny Heck
Rep. Denny Heck

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith wouldn’t call himself “depressed” when he spoke to a military lobbying group at Joint Base Lewis-McChord last week, but he acknowledged that he brought him with him a “depressing” message.

For the “foreseeable future,” the veteran lawmaker predicts diminished spending for the military, tight restrictions on how Congress allows the Pentagon to respond to budget cuts, and more political stalemates that could lead to government shutdowns.

“It’s not just that the budget is being reduced, it’s that it’s being reduced in an incredibly unpredictable fashion,” said Smith, of Bellevue, who is the top-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

He and Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, were two of the featured speakers Friday at a forum at JBLM for the Association of Defense Communities. It’s an organization that speaks up for the interests of civilian communities near military bases.

The congressmen spoke a month after the Pentagon announced a plan to cull 1,250 positions for active-duty soldiers at JBLM. That proposal was viewed as good news because earlier plans had suggested that the base could lose as many as 11,000 civilian and military positions.

JBLM could face deeper force reductions in coming years if Congress does not repeal the federal budget cuts known as sequestration. The full impact of those cuts has been delayed since they were announced in the Budget Control Act of 2011, but they’re still on the table and they could lead to the Army shedding 30,000 more soldiers by 2020.

“This is a preventable disaster,” Heck said.

Over the past four years, Smith and Heck have expressed varying degrees of optimism about whether Congress would manage to repeal spending caps in the 2011 budget bill. In 2013, an impasse over the budget caused a federal government shutdown that led to furloughs at JBLM.

This time, Heck predicted that divisions over the $612 billion defense budget adopted by the House would trigger another government shutdown. Democrats oppose the way Republicans chose to steer extra money to the Pentagon by using a fund normally earmarked only for war-related expenses.

“You heard it here first,” Heck said.

President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the bill, which passed the House with a Republican majority. In May, for the first time in his 18-year career as a congressman, Smith voted against the defense budget.

“Unfortunately, given the divisions within Congress between the House, the Senate and the president, what you’ve had in the past five years is epic unpredictability,” he said.

Smith said he was most concerned that Congress has blocked proposals from the military to reduce spending by trimming benefits for troops or by cutting certain weapons program. Smith favors launching a Base Realignment and Closure commission that would study whether to shut down certain military installations.

As a result, Smith said the Pentagon winds up retaining bases it doesn’t need, but cutting spending on training and maintenance. He fears that dynamic leaves troops underprepared for emergencies.

“It’s absurd, and what is the effect of this collective unwillingness to allow the Pentagon to do anything? The effect is readiness gets devastated,” he said.

Today the Army has about 490,000 active-duty soldiers. The force is expected to shrink to 450,000 by 2020 and could go as low as 420,000 if the sequestration spending caps remain in place.

Heck said sequestration likely would hit another aspect of the military-related economy in the Puget Sound region by reducing money for the development of the Air Force’s KC-46 air-refueling tanker. Boeing in 2011 won a $35 billion contract to build the jet. It is being tested at Boeing Field.

“The challenge really is how we avoid” sequestration, Heck said.

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