Cheney proposes 140,000 Guard, reserve job cuts Congress challenged to let 830 units go

March 27, 1992|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- A combative Defense Secretary Dick Cheney challenged Congress yesterday to stop wasteful spending on National Guard and reserve programs by eliminating 830 military units and about 140,000 jobs -- including 1,555 in Maryland -- by the end of 1993.

His insistent demand for cuts dovetailed neatly with President Bush's recent election-year effort to keep the Democratic-led Congress on the defensive by spotlighting its pet projects and accusing lawmakers of fiscal irresponsibility.

The proposed reduction would be the first step in a five-year, post-Cold War plan to reduce the nation's part-time military, though not nearly as sharply as the current effort to cut active-duty forces.

Reserve strength would decline from 1.15 million to about 920,000 by the end of 1997. By comparison, the active military already is being cut from 2.1 million troops to 1.6 million over the same period.

Although the plan was outlined more than a year ago, Mr. Cheney was required by Congress to report this month on the specific units slated for deactivation over the next two years. With Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at his side, Mr. Cheney seized the opportunity at a Pentagon news conference to take several hard swipes at Congress, which has traditionally balked at cutting the reserves.

"If we spend money on force structure, Guard and reserve force structure or active-duty force structure that no longer has a mission, it's money that's wasted," Mr. Cheney said.

Singling out Rep. Les Aspin, the Wisconsin lawmaker who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, and other key Democrats who wantto slash the defense budget far more than Mr. Bush has proposed, Mr. Cheney declared: "If Congress doesn't like this, it is totally irresponsible for them to suggest we go with deeper defense cuts.

"Nobody's suggested a better strategy," he added. "All I hear from my friends on the Hill is basically, 'Not in my back yard. Don't close down my armory, don't shut down my production line.' "

General Powell dismissed suggestions by several Democrats who proposed deeper cuts in new weapons or active-duty forces to protect the reserves from the budget ax. Instead of saving money "to have reserves you don't need anyway, give the money back to the taxpayers," he said.

The 140,000 reservists are no longer needed because the threat of a war against the former Soviet-led Warsaw Pact in Europe has vanished and because new military strategy is geared to regional conflicts, General Powell said.

Mr. Cheney said 80 percent of the proposed cuts involved units specifically designed to reinforce and support active-duty forces in Europe. Deactivation of the VII Corps in Europe this month means that reservists trained to support it no longer have a war-fighting mission, he said.

Budget pressures are also behind the plan. The proposed cuts should wring $20 billion out of the defense budget, Mr. Cheney said.

Mr. Cheney's offensive amounted to a renewed attack on one of Congress' sacred cows: the National Guard and reserve, which have been a strong source of local economic benefits, patronage and political support for state governors and members of Congress for generations.

Besides providing a low-cost military force for national defense, drug interdiction, natural disasters and civil emergencies, cadres of "weekend warriors" have been successful at rallying politicians to their cause for years and represent a formidable

lobbying presence in Washington.

And lawmakers know it pays to be responsive. Last year, as Congress voted to approve only 37,850 of the Bush administration's proposed cut of about 105,000 from the reserve rolls, Rep. G. V. "Sonny" Montgomery said candidly, "The best way to spread around defense spending is to have National Guard and reserve units in our different communities, where those reservists can receive additional income, educational benefits and serve his or her country."

Yesterday, the Mississippi Democrat, probably the most ardent supporter of the reserves in Congress, predictably expressed irritation withthe Cheney plan.

"It's wrong," Mr. Montgomery said. "We need these armories. . . . A local armory of 150 persons has a payroll of about $2 million a year. And as we are in this recession, by closing over 800 armories around the country, you're certainly not helping us get out of the recession."

Mr. Cheney said of the military establishment, "The only reason we exist is to fight and win wars. We're not a social welfare agency, we're not an employment agency, we're not an agency that's operated on the basis of what makes sense for some member of Congress's concern back home in the district.

"We have to focus specifically upon how we maintain the capacity to defend the nation with less money. And that means we've got to get smaller.

"Congress cannot have it both ways. The world has changed dramatically," Mr. Cheney said. "There are very few places left to cut the defense budget.

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