NORFOLK, Va. — With family members waving from a pier, sailors aboard a Navy destroyer left for an overseas mission with more uncertainty than ever about their homecoming as potentially massive budget cuts reshape military plans.
The political hick-hack in Congress over the budget is having real-life consequences for service members in the Navy and maybe soon in other branches. It comes at a time when some military families were getting used to deployments coming back down to normal lengths after more than a decade of two wars, when the Pentagon routinely extended the time forces stayed in the field.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Barry headed out Thursday for what was supposed to be a six-month deployment in Europe as part of a NATO plan to provide a ballistic-missile shield for the continent. The Navy has warned that tours like this one could be extended for unspecified periods after billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts known as sequestration take place March 1, unless Congress acts to avert them.
Among the military impacts, the Navy has said the cuts will mean less money for training and maintenance and that it could take longer to prepare crews to deploy as a result. The Navy has said that it would also deploy fewer ships to fewer places and that those that are sent out could spend longer stints at sea with fewer port calls to boost morale.
The possibility of extended deployments adds to the uncertainty that already accompanies military families.
"Even before the budget cuts and everything, you never have a set time that they're going to be home. I mean, they have a date, but that can always change so you always have that little bit of a worry that it's going to be longer than you think," said Robin Lunsford, whose husband Robert is an electronics technician aboard the Barry.
It's not just a concern for sailors, but for Marines, soldiers and airmen who continually deploy around the globe.
"If the military because of budget issues downsizes too much, does that mean that the fewer people who are left are going to have to deploy more?" asked Joyce Raezer, executive director at the National Military Family Association. "That's a real concern in the military community."
Many Navy tours crept up to seven or eight months from the typical six months while the Iraq war raged, with ships dotting the nearby waters to supply all kinds of support, from hosting warplanes to maintaining floating hospitals. The Army, the largest force on the ground in the wars, upped tour lengths in Iraq to 15 months from a year for the troop surge in 2007 to combat escalating violence.
The toll that extended and repeated deployments can take on sailors and their families isn't lost on Navy leaders. They created an expansive wellness campaign last year that targets alcohol abuse, among other problems, that they were concerned after a decade of war.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced the campaign during an all-hands call aboard the USS Bataan. The amphibious transports Marines that had recently completed the longest deployment for a Navy ship in nearly 40 years – at more than 10 months. At the time, he noted that the operational pace for the Navy and the Marines wasn't expected to slow down as the military shifted its focus to the Pacific.
There's also concern in the military community about how the cuts could affect programs meant to assist military families.
"I think a lot of our worry is access to some of the support services, whether it is counseling programs for kids, or programs to help families who are dealing with deployments, or programs that help military spouses find jobs when they move to a new community," Raezer said.
She said the services and programs that families depend on are staffed by federal employees who work for the military services, who have already been told to expect furloughs starting in March.
"Who is going to be there to support the family when they need that support service?" she said.
The Barry deployed a day after another ship's tour was canceled because of the looming cuts. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta indefinitely halted the USS Harry S. Truman from heading to the Middle East, leaving just one carrier in the region.
USS Barry Cmdr. Thomas J. Dickinson said part of being in the Navy is the ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.
"Anytime you go on a deployment you tell the crew, `This is what we're scheduled for and if requirements change you have to be flexible.' And we talk to the families about that as well because that's who it's really hard on because they're holding down the fort while we're away doing our job," said Dickinson, the ship's commanding officer.
"Everybody reads the news and we talk about it, but one thing I don't do with the crew is give them any kind of speculation. That just kind of jerks them around a little bit. So I give them the facts, I give them what I know, when I know it."
For other sailors, being flexible means unexpectedly staying in port when they had already canceled apartment leases, cellphone contracts and put items into storage
Seaman William Neild had already given up his apartment ahead of Friday's planned departure for the Truman. His wife had also already made plans to move to Illinois for the duration of his expected six- to eight-month deployment. He now plans to spend his nights aboard the Truman until it is finally given orders to deploy again.
"It's just a lot of frustration," he said.
The potential for the cuts to kick in is the result of Congress' failure to trim the deficit by $1.2 trillion over a decade. The Pentagon faces a $42.7 billion budget cut in the seven months starting in March and ending in September. The automatic cuts would be in addition to a $487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next 10 years mandated by the Budget Control Act passed in 2011.
Associated Press writer Kristin M. Hall contributed to this report from Nashville, Tenn.
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The U.S. incarcerates its citizens at a rate roughly <a href="http://www.parade.com/news/2009/03/why-we-must-fix-our-prisons.html" target="_hplink">five times higher than the global average</a>. We have about 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of its prisoners, according to The Economist,. This status quo costs our local, state and federal governments a combined $68 billion a year -- all of which becomes a federal problem during recessions, when states look to Washington for fiscal relief. Over the standard 10-year budget window used in Congress, that's a $680 billion hit to the deficit. Solving longstanding prison problems -- releasing elderly convicts unlikely to commit crimes, offering treatment or counseling as an alternative to prison for non-violent offenders, slightly shortening the sentences of well-behaved inmates, and substituting probation for more jail-time -- would do wonders for government spending.
End Of The Drug War
The federal government spends more than <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18563_162-20072096.html" target="_hplink">$15 billion a year</a> investigating and prosecuting the War on Drugs. That's $150 billion in Washington budget-speak, and it doesn't include the far higher costs of incarcerating millions of people for doing drugs. This money isn't getting the government the results it wants. As drug war budgets balloon, drug use escalates. Ending the Drug War offers the government two separate budget boons. In addition to saving all the money spending investigating, prosecuting and incarcerating drug offenders, Uncle Sam could actually regulate and tax drugs like marijuana, generating new revenue. Studies by pot legalization advocates indicate that fully legalizing weed in California would yield <a href="http://canorml.org/background/CA_legalization2.html" target="_hplink">up to $18 billion annually</a> for that state's government alone. For the feds, the benefits are even sweeter.
Let Medicare Negotiate With Big Pharma
The U.S. has <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/06/01/us-healthcare-costs-sb-idUSTRE5504Z320090601" target="_hplink">higher health care costs than any other country</a>. We spend over 15 percent of our total economic output each year on health care -- roughly 50 percent more than Canada, and double what the U.K. spends. Why? The American private health care system is inefficient, and the intellectual property rules involving medication in the U.S. can make prescription drugs much more expensive than in other countries. Medicare currently spends about $50 billion a year on prescription drugs. According to economist Dean Baker, <a href="http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/intellectual_property_2004_09.pdf" target="_hplink">Americans spend roughly 10 times more than they need to</a> on prescription drugs as a result of our unique intellectual property standards. These savings for the government, of course, would come from the pockets of major pharmaceutical companies, currently among the most profitable corporations the world has ever known. They also exercise tremendous clout inside the Beltway. President Barack Obama even <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/02/barack-obama-politics_n_1847947.html" target="_hplink">guaranteed drug companies more restrictive -- and lucrative -- intellectual property standards</a> in order to garner their support for the Affordable Care Act.
Offshore Tax Havens
The U.S. Treasury Department estimates that it loses about <a href="http://www.ctj.org/pdf/stopact.pdf" target="_hplink">$100 billion a year</a> in revenue due to offshore tax haven abuses. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has been pushing legislation for years to rein in this absurd tax maneuvering, but corporate lobbying on Capitol Hill has prevented the bill from becoming law.
Deprivatize Government Contract Work
In recent years, the federal government has privatized an enormous portion of public projects to government contractors. Over the past decade, the federal government's staffing has held steady, while the number of federal contractors has <a href="http://pogoarchives.org/m/co/igf/bad-business-report-only-2011.pdf" target="_hplink">increased by millions</a>. This outsourcing has resulted in much higher costs for the government than would be incurred by simply doing the work in-house. On average, contractors are paid <a href="http://pogoarchives.org/m/co/igf/bad-business-report-only-2011.pdf" target="_hplink">nearly double</a> what a comparable federal employee would receive for the same job, according to the Project On Government Oversight.
Print More Money
There's an old saying in economics: You have to print money to make money. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/09/underwear-sales-growth-economy_n_1952214.html" target="_hplink">Okay, there's no such saying</a>. Nevertheless, the great boogeyman of many conservative economic doctrines -- inflation -- isn't such a bad idea during periods where much of the citizenry is drowning in debt. Inflation is by no means a perfect remedy: it's a stealth cut to workers' wages. But it also has many benefits that are often unacknowledged by the Washington intelligentsia. Inflation makes housing debt, student loan debt and any other private-sector debt more manageable. Today, when <a href="http://www.corelogic.com/about-us/researchtrends/asset_upload_file448_16434.pdf" target="_hplink">10.8 million</a> homes are underwater -- meaning borrowers owe banks than their houses are worth, moderate inflation could ease that debt burden. By effectively reducing monthly bills, moderate inflation could actually put more money in the pockets of these homeowners to spend elsewhere, thus stimulating the economy. Moderate inflation -- 5 percent or so -- could also help alleviate the <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505145_162-57555780/student-loan-debt-nears-$1-trillion-is-it-the-new-subprime/" target="_hplink">$1 trillion</a> in student debt currently plaguing America's graduates. Make no mistake -- hyperinflation of 20 percent, 30 percent or more -- is bad. But the U.S. has ways to crush inflation when it gets out of hand, as proven by the Federal Reserve under then-Chairman Paul Volcker in the early-1980s.
Print Less Money
The government prints a <em>lot</em> of $1 bills. But it turns out that minting $1 coins is much, much cheaper. Over the course of 30 years, the government could save $4.4 billion by switching from dollar bills to dollar coins. Here's looking at you, <a href="http://www.usmint.gov/mint_programs/nativeamerican/" target="_hplink">Sacagawea</a>.
Immigration: Less Detention, More Ankle Bracelets
The government spends <a href="http://newamericamedia.org/2012/04/ice-slow-to-embrace-alternatives-to-immigrant-detention.php" target="_hplink"> $122 per person, per day</a> detaining immigrants who are considered safe and unlikely to commit crimes. The government has plenty of other options available to monitor such people, at a cost of as little as $15 per person. For the first 205 years of America's existence, there was no federal system for detaining immigrants. The process began in 1981.
Financial Speculation Tax
Wall Street loves to gamble. In good times, financial speculation is the source of tremendous profits in America's banking system, but when the bets go bad, the government picks up the tab, as evidenced by the epic bank bailouts of 2008 and 2009. Unfortunately, this speculation is difficult to define in legalistic terminology and even more difficult to police. One solution? By taxing every financial trade at the ultra-low rate of 0.25 percent, the U.S. government can impose a modest incentive against gambling for the sheer sake of gambling. If there's an immediate cost to placing a bet, a lot of traders will choose not to bet. What's more, this tax could raise about <a href="http://www.ips-dc.org/media/why_a_financial_transaction_tax" target="_hplink">$150 billion a year</a> for the federal government.
Taxing greenhouse gases would generate $80 billion a year right now, and up to $310 billion a year by 2050, <a href="http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2012/07/carbon-tax-mckibbin-morris-wilcoxen" target="_hplink">according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution</a>. It would also help avert catastrophic ecological and economic damage from climate change.