The battle over proposed cuts to the Air National Guard has re-emerged as key lawmakers work to hammer out a defense authorization bill before the end of the year.
The Air Force and Defense Department are aggressively lobbying members of the conference committee, who are negotiating the House and Senate versions of the bill, to pass a revised 2013 budget plan. Supporters of the Air Guard — including nearly 100 members of Congress and governors' group leaders — are pushing for a complete freeze until all sides can agree on cuts to Guard personnel and aircraft.
The wrangling over the budget dates to February, when the Obama administration sent to Congress a budget proposal that called for cutting 9,900 airmen — 5,100 guardsmen, 2,900 active duty and 900 reservists — and more than 200 aircraft. After multiple counterproposals from state leaders and the Air Force, the House and Senate decided to block all Air Force cuts for 2013. A conference committee is melding the House and Senate versions of the defense authorization into a final bill that, if passed by Congress, will be sent to Obama to sign into law.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged lawmakers in a Dec. 11 letter to approve a revised Air Force budget plan that saves $7.8 billion, while sparing 70 percent of personnel cuts and 30 percent of aircraft decommissionings. If the freeze on budget cuts makes it into the final version of the defense authorization, the Air Force would be forced to "operate, sustain, and maintain aircraft that are in excess of national requirements and are not affordable in an austere budget environment," according to Panetta's letter to leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Air Force and Panetta's office have refused requests for details on the Air Force's revised budget plan, and supporters of the Air National Guard say they have not been part of the negotiations.
Retired Maj. Gen. Gus L. Hargett Jr., president of the National Guard Association of the United States, said he was concerned that members of Congress were willing to pass the Air Force's new plan, based on the perception that Air Force and Guard leaders had reached an agreement.
"I do know that there has been some misinformation on the Hill that some governors and some adjutants general have endorsed [an Air Force] alternative plan," Hargett said in a statement Thursday. "This is the kind of mischief that can occur during conference, when a handful from the House and Senate can go behind closed doors and literally change legislation in the name of forging compromise between the two chambers."
On Dec. 6, almost 100 senators and representatives, led by the Senate National Guard Caucus and House National Guard and Reserve Caucus, urged the leaders of both the Senate and House Armed Services committees to keep the freeze in place to allow more time to negotiate how the active force and Guard absorb reductions in the manpower and aircraft.
"An overwhelming majority of the Congress, representing both parties and both chambers, believes that these cuts need thorough and objective evaluation before they can either be passed into law or replaced by other proposals that will better enable the Air Force to meet its mission requirements while adhering to the Budget Control Act," the letter states.
Leaders from the National Governors Association and the bipartisan Council of Governors on Dec. 10 sent a letter to the leaders of the armed services committees thanking them for blocking Air Force cuts and saying they plan to meet with the Pentagon to discuss a future budgeting process.