Rising to shield commissaries from the budget knife

September 1, 2011 

Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine Corps master sergeant who has fought for years to win government-funded health care for families exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, doesn't want the measure passed if, to pay for it, Congress would gut the military's prized commissary benefit.

Critics contend that's what the Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act (S. 277) would do, funding health care for these families by ending annual appropriations for commissaries and merging these base grocery store operations with exchanges, the name for base department stores.

"Do I agree with this proposal to punish veterans and their families and active duty people who depend on, and worked for, the right to use the commissary? No. We have lost too many of our benefits over the years to have this taken from us," Ensminger said.

But Ensminger, who lost a 9-year-old daughter, Janey, to acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 1985, and blames her death and many others on poisons found in Lejeune drinking water, had only praise for Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., lead architect of S. 277. In June, when forced to find cuts in defense spending to pay for Lejeune vets' health care, Burr proposed streamlining military store operations. The full committee agreed.

Just by getting S. 277 through the veterans affairs committee this summer, Burr brought ailing Lejeune veterans and families closer to the medical help they need, Ensminger suggested. That alone is a victory.

"Now, does the bill need to be amended and tweaked? Yes, by all means," Ensminger said. "Does there need to be another way of paying for it? Yes, and there are other savings that can be found within the Department of Defense budget. But, that burden should not be placed on Sen. Burr or Sen. (Patty) Murray or the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (of which she is the chairwoman). It should be placed on the perpetrators who did this."

That, Ensminger said, is the Department of Defense, and more specifically the Navy Department and the Marine Corps.

Burr's decision to fund S. 277 by putting commissaries at risk has been roundly criticized by military associations, commissary patrons and the American Logistics Association, which represents suppliers doing business with base stores. American Logistics projects that, if passed as written, S. 277 would raise grocery prices an average of $4,000 a year for military families and kill 50,000 store jobs for family members.

The vast infrastructure of commissaries, built over decades and funded by a five percent surcharge on commissary items that otherwise are sold at cost, would be lost to patrons forever, said Patrick Nixon, American Logistics' president and a former director of the Defense Commissary Agency.

Commissary advocates on Capitol Hill suggest the store system had a target on its back for deficit hawks already. The target only got bigger when the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee signaled that ending taxpayer subsidies and lowering patron savings were reasonable efficiency moves.

Burr's staff merely had found and embraced a cost-savings proposal floated by the Congressional Budget Office for the last several years. The bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, created by President Obama, used that same suggestion on store consolidation to illustrate ways defense spending might be cut. It said combining store systems into one network over a five-year period would save $1.7 billion annually, assuming prices were raised an average of five percent.

The same commission said some savings could be returned to families in the form of a grocery allowance to offset the price increase. S. 277 proposes no such allowance. The budget office said arguing against this is the fact that a combined store network still could offer patrons "below-market prices."

Burr might have done all he can at this point to help these families. If he were to request and get floor time in the Senate to debate and try to pass S. 277, the Senate Armed Services Committee stands ready to seek unanimous consent of colleagues to send the bill to its committee, which claims oversight of defense budgets and policies including base stores.

A Senate source acknowledged referral likely would kill the bill. The armed services panel won't support deep cuts to the commissary benefit and isn't keen to propose another way to pay for S. 277, given the tight defense budgets already looming. The department must find $350 billion in cuts over 10 years, and perhaps a lot more. A special 12-member "super committee" could propose deeper defense cuts. And if it can't agree to a plan to lower deficit spending by another $1.5 trillion over 10 years, automatic budget cuts of $1.2 trillion will be triggered with half taken from defense spending.

Alarmed by the funding provision in S. 277, and by the number of debt-reduction initiatives that threaten military shopping discounts, Reps. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., and Susan A. Davis, D-Calif., chairman and ranking member of the House military personnel subcommittee, respectively, sent a letter last month to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, signed by more than 60 colleagues.

It acknowledges the budget challenges Panetta faces. But it urges him to ignore "cavalier rhetoric by budget-minded advocates" that denigrates the need for the military to operate grocery and department stores. Yes, military pay has improved. But a "compelling need" remains, it says, "to provide young families and elderly retirees access to discounted goods." Base stores do so very efficiently and have become "part of the fabric of military life."

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