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Top enlisted members: Don't mess with commissaries

Feb. 26, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
SE NCOs Testify
From right: Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler; Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens; Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett; and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody testify during a Feb. 26 oversight hearing on the quality of life in the military on Capitol Hill. (Rob Curtis / Staff)
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The Marine Corps’ senior enlisted adviser told lawmakers Wednesday that he believes focusing on the commissary benefit as a potential source of defense budget savings is a mistake.

“I’m a fan of [the commissary],” Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Micheal Barrett told the House Appropriations Committee’s military construction and veterans affairs panel at a hearing that focused on quality-of-life issues.

“I personally think it’s ridiculous that we’re going after something that saves a young lance corporal $4,500 a year,” said Barrett, who testified alongside the senior enlisted advisers of the other services.

He was not the only one to cut against the grain of a new defense budget plan that calls for reducing the annual commissary subsidy by more than two-thirds, which advocates say would inevitable drive up customer costs.

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody said that for “those young men and women who are right on the edge [financially], that 30 percent savings is significant and they are shopping in that commissary.”

Cody was referring to cost comparisons by the Defense Commissary Agency that shows patrons save an average of 30 percent compared to average off-base grocery store prices.

But the senior enlisted advisers said there may be ways to reduce costs without significantly diminishing the benefit. Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler noted that DeCA is very heavily regulated in its operations.

“I’ve been told it’s the most heavily regulated organization in the Department of Defense,” Chandler said.

As one example, he noted that under current law the commissaries cannot sell any generic, or private label, items — everything must be a name-brand item.

He suggested that prohibition should be reviewed. “That’s an example of where we might find some savings,” he said.

“It doesn’t make sense that they can’t sell generics,” agreed Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, subcommittee chairman. He said his panel will look into such requirements.

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Michael Stevens recommended a comprehensive review of the way commissaries do business to see what could be tightened up.

“In the end, we can still have a viable commissary system that provides the assistance it does today, and do so with less cost,” he said.

Under the plan unveiled by Hagel, the Pentagon wants to cut taxpayer funding for commissaries by more than two-thirds over the next three years, from $1.4 billion to $400 million. Stores overseas and in remote areas would continue to be funded out of that remaining $400 million.

Other commissary stores would apparently operate more like base exchanges, which get no taxpayer subsidies, and mark up items to fund their operations.

It’s not yet clear whether the Pentagon will ask Congress to change the law to allow commissary officials to mark up prices, raise the 5 percent surcharge customers pay at the cash register, or both.

At one point in the hearing, Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., asked Barrett whether he supported full commissary privileges for retired officers.

Barrett replied: “You’ve served your nation honorably. You’ve worn the cloth. You’re part of the 0.4 percent [of Americans] willing to put it on the line. Hell yeah.”

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