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Putting Troops Before Politics

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Putting political gain ahead of our troops is pretty crass, but it seems some are prepared to do it.

A government shutdown is a misnomer. During a “shutdown,” essential activities continue, Social Security checks get paid, and life for most Americans will be relatively normal. If Congress and the President don’t pass a military appropriations bill, however, our troops might not get paid.

The fight going on in Washington these days is rather absurd. We have a $1.65 trillion deficit and we are fighting over whether $61 billion should be cut from it. That’s about 3.7 percent of the deficit. The answer to anybody who lives on Planet Earth is “of course.” At the very least, can’t we remove military paychecks from the absurdity of Washington politics?

History repeats itself with amazing frequency, and the talking heads cannot resist drawing comparisons between 2011 and 1995. Of course, the parallels are much deeper than the politics. In the fall of 1995, President Clinton was preparing to send ground troops into Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of NATO peacekeeping operations. And despite a multi-year no fly zone and pending ground operation, President Clinton was fighting to reduce spending on defense.

The defense spending battle was just one of many spending battles that President Clinton had with the Republican Congress. However, he finally relented, weeks before boots hit foreign soil, and allowed a defense spending bill to become law, though without his signature. As a result, America’s brave men and women were paid during the ensuing government shutdowns.

Today, despite ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and our continued involvement in the NATO-led effort in Libya, our troops have no such certainty. Last year, the Democrat-dominated Congress failed to pass a budget or any regular appropriations measures. Instead, they opted for a stopgap funding measure designed to kick the can down the road and force a newly elected Republican House of Representatives to deal with last year’s business. As we’ve said before, this was nothing more than a cynical political maneuver intended to stymie newly elected conservatives.

Time and time again, it is clear that the defenders of big government failed to learn the lessons of November. Even now, they remain obstinate, denigrating Americans who are actively engaging in the political process. Their strategy is to put politics first. Refusing to pass a real alternative to the House-passed H.R.1 spending bill is part of their political plan to shut down the government. As Howard Dean said, he’d be “quietly rooting” for a government shutdown if he still led the DNC.

Amazingly, America’s military is already suffering the effects of absurd stopgap funding measures and multiple overseas commitments. The Defense Department is already raiding various accounts to pay for personnel costs. Stopgap funding measures also mean forced reductions in maintenance and abrupt change-of-stations for military families.

If Congress does not come to some sort of an agreement on spending for the remaining six months of the fiscal year, many government functions will shutter and the burden on our military will increase. New draft guidance from the Defense Department suggests “all military personnel will continue in normal duty,” meaning they will continue to fight and serve with honor in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and beyond. However, they “will serve without pay” during that time.

President Obama and Senator Harry Reid have an obligation to explain to our military why they have refused to come to the table and either pass H.R. 1 through the Senate or pass an alternative. If they are joining Howard Dean in “rooting” for a shutdown for political reasons then we should let the American people decide whether or not they think Republican demands to cut $61 billion out of a $1.65 trillion deficit are “draconian.” President Obama will lose that debate. But he should not be allowed to use our military families as a pawn in that fight.

Americans do not join the military to get rich; they join to serve the country. In the event of a shutdown, defense officials have suggested they could meet the April 15 payday, but not the April 29 payday. Military life, especially for young families, is not easy and missing a paycheck only increases the burden. Although most on-base functions will continue – dining halls, gyms and daycare centers – base commissaries might close, which would substantially increase costs for military families.

We need to put our troops before Washington politics.

Although 2011 is much different than 1995, President Obama should follow President Clinton’s reluctant lead. Pass a defense appropriations bill and put the troops ahead of politics. Although the defense spending contained in H.R.1 is not ideal, it did provide funding for our military for the remainder of the year. At a bare minimum, Congress should send that element of H.R.1 to the President’s desk, immediately.

We can fight about spending cuts, tax increases and entitlement reform all we want – and we need to – but we should make sure our troops are taken care of.

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