Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 14, 2016

Everybody Picks on Military Readiness Because It’s Easy, Panel Chairman Says

Rep. Rob Wittman, who chairs the Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, says that the word “readiness” is a “term of art” where people “tangentially understand it, but don’t really understand that.” It also happens to be “the only area where you can quickly achieve savings” in the defense budget, since other programs have contracts attached to them that make it hard to get any short-term return with spending reductions.

That all makes it an easy place for lawmakers to seek cuts, the Virginia Republican said Tuesday at a breakfast with defense reporters. And he thinks it’s a bad idea, one that threatens to rear its head again as the defense budget continues to decline and as policymakers start to shoehorn more spending that is currently allocated via a war account back into the base budget.

Wittman said he spends a lot of time briefing fellow lawmakers on the issue. Once they get it — when they understand the impact of cuts in training, or how not spending enough on ship maintenance means those ships aren’t as readily available when they’re needed — they become more interested in protecting it, he said.

He’s not alone in emphasizing readiness — when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel appeared before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense last month, he identified readiness as his main concern when it comes to the automatic budget cuts put in place by a process known as sequestration.

There’s a sentiment that, since the United States pulled troops from Iraq and as the majority of troops are slated to come out of Afghanistan, the era of the Overseas Contingency Operations account is coming to an end. Despite being identified as a war-related account, some regular departmental funding (such as for anti-piracy) is included there. If money for those enduring missions need to go back into the base budget under existing caps, it could be a tight squeeze. “Potentially, it can have a significant effect on readiness,” Wittman said.

With a new group of House members slated to join Congress after the elections, it’s unclear how much they will side with the need to preserve the defense budget, Wittman said. From what he’s seen, more of them are talking on the campaign trail about cutting federal spending. But “attention to defense is elevated” right now with what’s happening in places like Iraq, Ukraine and Israel, he noted. There is some sentiment against getting involved in foreign affairs after the long and costly Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Wittman acknowledged, but “A lot of folks are saying, ‘Why aren’t we doing something? Shouldn’t we at least be a part of this?'”

And Wittman said he’s eager to give the new cadre the information it needs about military readiness.

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