State Journal Register

June 29, 2001

Lawmakers attack proposed defense program budget 


WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was reminded how hard it can be to make even small changes in defense programs and structures when he presented his proposed $329 billion
defense budget to Congress Thursday.

In his sessions with the House and Senate armed services committees, Rumsfeld encountered angry opposition to a proposal to cut 33 B-1B bombers from the Air National Guard. He met milder protests to his pitch for additional base closings, privatization of military commissaries and some
maintenance depot work as well as for a change in the Davis-Bacon requirement to pay union wages on government contracts.

The committee members did not react to a proposal to contract with private firms to conduct in-flight refueling for the Navy, which has not been explained.

Rumsfeld said the proposed changes were among efficiencies he is seeking that could save billions of dollars for more urgent defense needs.

If given what he called "greater freedom to manage," Rumsfeld suggested the Pentagon could reduce its operating expenses by 5 percent, freeing up about $15 billion a year.

That money could help buy the additional ships, aircraft, precision weapons and other equipment needed to modernize the armed services and to improve their work facilities and housing, Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld and Army Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the services have about 25 percent too many bases, which waste billions of dollars. That money could be used to fix up the necessary facilities if the excess bases were closed, they said.

Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., a leading opponent of Clinton administration base-closing efforts, conceded that more bases should be closed. But he asked Rumsfeld to find a better method than the previous base closure commission process that puts every base at risk.

Rumsfeld said his staff is studying alternative systems that could be used for a base-closure process in 2003.

Additional billions could be saved by other efficiency measures, Rumsfeld said, including turning the military-run supermarkets over to commercial firms and raising the threshold for contracts that must comply with the Davis-Bacon union wage requirements from $2,000 to $1 million.

The budget also proposes letting commercial firms do maintenance work that is in excess of the military depots' normal capacity.

Those proposals drew bipartisan opposition from lawmakers with military facilities that would be affected.

In the afternoon hearing before the Senate panel, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., shouted at Rumsfeld for revealing the plan to retire B-1s from the Kansas, Georgia and Idaho Air Guard in the budget without any prior consultation with the affected lawmakers.

"This is not the way this should happen," he said.