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Jewish World Review June 12, 2001 / 22 Sivan, 5761

Jill "J.R." Labbe

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Consumer Reports

Another military instance of 'hurry up and wait'? -- ONE of the core duties of the nation's elected leadership is to collect taxes and establish a budget for the purposes of national defense.

Says so right in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall have the Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States."

Yet in a curious juxtaposition of priorities, Congress this year has managed to give tax money back to citizens without adopting a budget for national defense.

It's even more curious that the new president, who made the nation's military a prime focus of his campaign, hasn't even submitted a defense budget for Congress to consider.

George W. Bush wrapped his candidacy in the mantle of military morale and preparedness during his presidential campaign, appealing to everyone who's ever donned a uniform of the U.S. armed forces as a voter base by promising to improve conditions in which military personnel live and work, pay and benefits, training, supplies, etc.

Bush said repeatedly that our servicemen and women are undertrained, underequipped and underpaid. The only area where they are "over" is overdeployed.

Once in office, Bush was ready to bolster his rhetoric with fact. He ordered a strategic review of the armed services. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was instructed to examine overall U.S. strategy in three areas: quality-of-life and morale issues; conventional force structure and procurement; and deterrence strategy, including the size and shape of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal and future missile defenses.

And until such time as Rumsfeld's report is filed, Bush said, he would hold off on asking Congress for increased defense dollars. Laudably, his decision to "put strategy first, then spending,"(as Steven Kosiak with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment says) means that this administration is not going to throw dollars at weapons systems or programs that no longer fit the country's needs or the military's mission.

"We have yet to submit our budget," Bush told reporters on Feb. 12. "I will later on. But, I have said during the campaign, I have said since I've been sworn in, it's important for us to do a top-to-bottom review, to review all missions, spending priorities, and that's exactly what the secretary of defense is going to. And, before people jump to conclusions, I think it's important to get that review finished."

It's June, and America is still waiting for Rumsfeld's review. Except it has morphed into something other than "top to bottom" in the intervening months.

"The review is not really huge," Rumsfeld told The New York Times on May 16. "It's been mischaracterized as top to bottom, or comprehensive, and so forth." He now describes the "strategy" paper "not as a conclusion, but as a part of a process, a vehicle for discussion, for fleshing up issues."

Rumsfeld, of course, meant to point the bony finger of accusation at the media as the source of the mischaracterization, not at his commander in chief.

So while Rumsfeld decides how much flesh to put on the bones of the new American military, the problems that have plagued the old one for the past eight years continue.

"Our military is low on parts, pay and morale," Bush said in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia last summer.

That hasn't changed. For example, Rear Adm. J. Jarrett Clinton, acting assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, testified in March before the House Appropriations Committee that the Pentagon's current budget is about $1.4 billion short of what's needed to operate military hospitals and provide health insurance coverage to military families and retirees.

America's service personnel don't need the results of a study - fat or thin, fleshy or bony, top to bottom or side to side - to know that pressing problems demand immediate attention. Yet the big question facing Congress is: Where will it find the money to address issues like maintenance, spare parts, munitions and training when the rebate checks are in the mail?

Republicans point to the $500 billion "contingency reserve" built into the Congressional Budget Resolution, but it's anybody's guess how much of that, if any, will be available for defense. With the Democrats now in control of the Senate, hide and watch where it goes.

Which may be what Rumsfeld will feel like doing if his report is ever complete.

JWR contributor Jill "J.R." Labbe is senior editorial writer and columnist for the Star-Telegram . Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Jill "J.R." Labbe