Points of Interest: The Fight for S-4

By Tom Philpott

The final package was an embarrassment of riches for personnel accounts, causing more worry than delight among military leaders because most S-4 provisions were not funded.

Eight senators who voted against the package did so largely out of fear the Senate was abandoning the kind of fiscal discipline that, in the last Congress, produced the first balanced budget in 30 years. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, voted for the bill but promised to challenge it as violating the balanced budget agreement, if sent back to the Senate for a final vote "without being paid for."

A day later, the House subcommittee on military personnel, chaired by a wary Representative Steve Buyer (R-IN), heard testimony on both the Clinton and Senate pay plans. Christopher Jehn, an assistant director at the Congressional Budget Office, testified that Redux retirement, which both plans would enhance, "is not causing a large exodus of mid-career personnel." And the "so-called" pay gap of 13% is questionable, he said, having "no value" in determining how best to adjust military pay. Other witnesses also argued against changing Redux or boosting service pay dramatically.

By early March, however, Senator John Warner (R-VA) put critics on notice he intended to see key provisions of S-4 enacted. The 72-year-old lawmaker is at the peak of his power after 20 years in the Senate, having assumed chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee in January. It is a comfortable position for Warner who combines the clout of chairman with gentlemanly charm and genuine expertise on defense issues.

During a posture hearing on 2 March, Warner, Senator Max Cleland (D-GA), and other S-4 sponsors got Army Secretary Louis Caldera and acting Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters to praise provisions of S-4 not found in the Clinton budget. Warner then promised to deliver transcripts of their remarks to House leaders, including Buyer and National Security Committee chairman Representative Floyd Spence (R-SC).

Then Warner reminded the committee that it costs roughly $7 million to train a new pilot. With the Air Force alone now short 1,000 pilots, he said, that is a $7 billion expense. If S-4 can solve just a few of those problems, it is a "cheap bill," Warner said.

Navy Secretary Richard Danzig asked Senator Warner to consider "other aspects of pilot retention" like "number of flying hours, availability of spare parts, and need for [more] platforms." Danzig suggested these could become greater problems if too much money is spent on pay and retirement. Air Force Secretary Peters agreed, saying operational tempo was a consideration too.

"I understand all that," said Warner. "But look my dear friends: When your new F-22 [fighter] is parked on the ramp because you don't have anyone to fly it, there sits a taxpayer's investment. Same thing with your ships, Secretary Danzig. So let's all get our shoulder to the wheel" on S-4. If it needs changing, he said, "in the course of conferencing with the House, we can straighten it out."

If the House declines to take up S-4, Warner intends to tuck most of its major provisions in the regular defense authorization bill, and then negotiate with the House.


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