Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
The chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee strongly opposes a Pentagon plan to cut funding for commissaries, another signal that the drastic $1 billion proposed reduction will not survive the congressional budget process.
Members of the House and Senate subcommittees that set Defense Department policy already have appeared lukewarm to the plan, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle saying the fiscal 2015 personnel budget proposals — including the commissary cuts — undermine the work of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, expected to publish pay and benefits recommendations in 2015.
But on Wednesday during a military health hearing, Chairman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., had the harshest words yet for the plan, which would slash the Defense Commissary Agency’s budget from $1.4 billion to $400 million.
“I don’t think we ought to cut the commissary budget. ... I think if we want to look at the stress military families are facing, we need to look at their activities of daily living and look at this holistically. ... [The commissary] is one of the most important tools you have for the health and well-being of the military and the garrisons in this country,” Mikulski said to the service surgeons general.
The proposal calls for funding stores in remote areas and overseas out of the $400 million, while other commissaries would operate more like base exchanges, which receive no taxpayer subsidies.
The plan is expected to drive up prices for anyone who uses the commissary, from junior enlisted to retirees on fixed incomes.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said the reductions in personnel costs, including the commissary proposals, are needed to slow the growth of military compensation costs to free up funds for training, readiness and modernization.
Mikulski said at a time when thousands of junior troops and families use food stamps, it’s inappropriate to increase their grocery budget.
“There’s the stress of being on the battlefield and there’s the stress of being a soldier. We wonder why they smoke, why they overeat the wrong foods, why aren’t they eating kale and quinoa? Why aren’t they at Whole Foods and watching Dr. Oz and being healthy? They are just trying to get food,” Mikulski said.
Testifying before Congress in February, the top enlisted advisers of the Marine Corps and Air Force spoke out against the reductions, saying there may be other ways to reduce costs without diminishing the benefit.
“I personally think it’s ridiculous that we’re going after something that saves a young lance corporal $4,500 a year,” Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Michael Barrett told the House Appropriations Committee military construction and veterans affairs panel.
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody added that for “those young men and women who are right on the edge [financially], that 30 percent savings is significant and they are shopping in that commissary.”
Several lawmakers have stepped up to block the Pentagon from making any changes to the commissary budget before the commission issues its final report.
Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Mark Warner, D-Va., introduced legislation March 5 that would block the funding cut. On the House side, Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., proposed a similar bill, the “Military Commissary Sustainment Act,” three weeks later.
The House Armed Services Committee will unveil an initial version of its defense authorization bill at the end of April, with finalization expected in May. The Senate will hold closed hearings on its own National Defense Authorization bill May 21-23.
Staff Writer Karen Jowers contributed to this report.