WASHINGTON — Morale-boosting programs for military service members and their families could face severe funding reductions from the new Congress, which is eager to slash the Defense Department budget, the chairman of a House Armed Services subcommittee warned Wednesday.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., the chairman of the Military Personnel Subcommittee, predicted that slashing the programs — recreation, sports and leisure activities, base exchanges and commissaries — could damage morale and military preparedness, and adversely affect re-enlistment rates.
"I fear that misperceptions about the absence of a link between morale, welfare and recreation programs and combat readiness will place those programs at greater risk of being cut too deeply," Wilson said. "We must not allow MWR programs to become easy targets to budget cutters."
Wilson said he worried that some lawmakers in both parties might favor a "guns vs. gymnasiums" approach, viewing military weaponry, technology and infrastructure as no-cut essentials while seeing programs such as child care, fitness centers, libraries and movie availability as not crucial to the military's mission.
"Some would say it's not important to the military. I disagree," Wilson said. "When you have a happy military family, you have a happy military member."
Wilson and Rep. Susan Davis of California, the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, advised representatives from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps who testified Wednesday to be prepared to fight for these programs.
"It is my hope that MWR managers are prepared to make those decisions and demonstrate a willingness to find savings," Wilson told the service representatives. "But those managers must also be prepared to fight hard to factually justify the programs that are truly critical to service members and their families."
The Defense Department spends about $2.7 billion annually to support MWR programs and about $279 million to support military exchanges and commissaries — on-base stores that often sell goods at lower prices than stores off-base do — according to subcommittee staff. The MRW programs and exchanges generate about $12.5 billion in annual sales.
Subcommittee members said they hadn't seen any specific legislation aimed at cutting the myriad of morale-oriented initiatives, which include "wounded warrior" support programs, youth programs and services for deployed troops.
But lawmakers, particularly freshman Republicans, have said the federal government must cut spending now and that everything is on the table, including the defense budget.
A bill by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to cut $500 billion in one year calls for tens of millions of dollars in defense spending reductions.
In the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., initially offered an amendment to a spending bill to cut $58 billion from the Defense Department, but she withdrew it Tuesday.
Davis said she was concerned that commissaries and exchanges would suffer under the budget ax.
"Some people say 'Let them go to Wal-Mart,' " Davis said. "The concern is, in this push for frugality, that there is a perception among some people that the operation of commissaries and exchanges are something we could do without."
If that happens, Davis said, it could end up hurting the U.S. military in the long run.
"We might not have difficulty in retaining service members," she predicted. "But we might have difficulty in retaining their families."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington