U.S. House leaders who visited Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Saturday stressed that they're serious about cutting the nation's deficit but unwilling to skimp on defense funding while soldiers are fighting two wars.
The delegation included eight members of the House Armed Services Committee, who earlier this week grilled Pentagon officials about Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ proposal to cut military spending by $78 billion over the next five years.
“Before we take money from the Defense Department, we need to make sure all of the needs of war fighters are met now and in the future,” Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., said during lunch at McChord Air Field.
McKeon coordinated the trip to the West Coast with the committee’s ranking minority member, Democrat Adam Smith of Tacoma. They traveled to a number of military bases in California on Friday and are scheduled to visit Naval Base Kitsap today.
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Budget battles likely will loom large in the coming year as congressmen seek to protect their districts from cuts while working to reduce overall spending. Some of the lawmakers who visited the base said they’d target defense acquisition programs to reduce waste in contracts.
“We want to make sure every dollar is spent wisely and efficiently,” Smith said. “We can do better.”
The trip was an opportunity to give an up-close look at the military to freshman members of Congress who campaigned this fall pledging to rein in federal spending.
“We’ve been having lots of ‘Oh, wow,’ moments lately,” one of those freshmen, Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Ill., said as he stepped out of the cockpit of a C-17 Globemaster III in an expansive hangar at McChord Air Field.
Schilling was impressed with the plane’s varied assignments, which include dropping supplies on the front lines in Afghanistan and supporting humanitarian missions. The C-17 also can turn into a flying intensive-care unit for medical evacuations from the battlefield.
“We need to take care of the debt and waste, but I’m never going to sacrifice the safety of our nation,” Schilling said.
The congressmen saw a base that has seen significant growth in the past decade. It now has 50,587 civilian and military employees, up from 32,700 in 2003.
Signs of that expansion were everywhere – from the scaffolding on the outside of unfinished on-base housing to the still-changing training grounds where soldiers prepare for assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Smith said the growth should slow as the wars wind down. Still, he said, the military has not caught up with the effects of that expansion on roads, schools and other public infrastructure.
“The challenge now is dealing with the growth that has happened. There’s still more to be done,” Smith said.
Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the senior Army general on the base, said he was mindful of pressures to trim defense spending when he met with the congressmen Saturday morning. He accompanied them throughout the day and felt reassured that they were committed to supporting soldiers on combat missions and their families back home.
“I’m confident as a commander that we’re going to be funded, equipped, trained and ready to be deployed overseas,” he said.
Budget concerns shaded discussions about how the joint base is administered. The Air Force and the Army in October completed a five-year transition to merge McChord Air Force Base with Fort Lewis.
It’s unclear how much money the merger could save over time, but political and military leaders said the changes should pay off.
Lewis-McChord officers “felt that the transition to joint basing is going very well, and they feel they can do a lot of things more efficiently” as the Army and the Air Force learn to work in the new model, Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, said.
The delegation’s tour took members to the Army’s Stryker processing center, where representatives learned about the eight-wheeled vehicle’s effect on the Iraq War. Recent war veterans described it as a quick, safe and lethal weapon. Some of the congressmen practiced targeting a mortar mounted on a Stryker and dropping a round into its cannon.
Congressmen also visited a training area where the Army prepares soldiers to identify threats posed by improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan. It included a walk through an Afghan-styled home filled with signals that indicate to infantrymen the site was being used to manufacture bombs, such as the scent of fertilizer chemicals.
McKeon said he was particularly interested in that site. He said he’s been troubled by the number of casualties caused by IEDs. The training he saw, coupled with improvements to infantry vehicles, showed him that the Army was making progress in dealing with the bombs.
“It made me feel a lot better, because that’s been the biggest cause of death and maiming of our young men and women,” he said.