House panel votes to expand military housing privatization

In a matter of minutes on Friday, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Installations and Facilities whipped through a $10.3 billion measure to improve and maintain military housing and bases, then sent it to the full committee to be joined with other pieces of the $329 billion defense authorization bill (H.R. 2586).

With bipartisan support and not a murmur of dissent, the so-called MilCon measure--which passed by voice vote--features a $195 million loan guarantee program to encourage private developers to build, renovate and maintain family housing units for military members. Still in the nascent stage, with such units now available at Ft. Carson, Colo., Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, and the military's South Texas Regional Housing site, the new money is expected to generate some 13,000 new or rehabilitated units at bases across the continental United States.

Subcommittee Chairman Jim Saxton, R-N.J., said his "mark" would "make permanent the authorities contained in the Military Housing Privatization Initiative," and noted that: "Just this week, the Army told the committee that it would be soliciting proposals to privatize housing at four installations--Ft. Bragg, N.C.; Ft. Campbell, Ky.; Ft. Stewart, Ga.; and Ft. Polk, La."

Hawaiian Rep. Neil Abercrombie, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said after Friday's markup that the privatization initiative was not meant to compete with existing military housing agencies but rather to "supplement and accelerate the expansion and renewal of housing for our service members."

Saxton also said the markup did not take into account the Bush Administration's impending request--tentatively scheduled to be unveiled next week--to close or reduce the size of several military bases and facilities as a cost-cutting measure. Base closings are highly controversial in Congress, since they inevitably entail civilian job losses and other blows to local economies. But Defense officials say that military savings must be found in some accounts to offset the rising costs of new weapons, training and personnel.

The MilCon measure is just part of a much larger authorization bill (H.R. 2586) that is scheduled for markup by the full Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. That bill, which sets basic policy goals for the nation's military services and recommends spending levels for each branch, is expected to carry a price tag of nearly $329 billion for fiscal year 2002--an 11 percent increase over the authorization for this year (not counting the $5.6 billion for defense contained in a recent 2001 supplemental appropriations bill).

Several subcommittee members have complained that the MilCon section does not provide sufficient funding for military family needs, but Saxton defended the $10.3 billion mark as a "move in the right direction." He also noted that subcommittee chairmen are charged with the responsibility of staying within spending limits established by the Budget Committee and allocations set forth by the full committee.

Abercrombie was not so reticent, however, nor was he constrained by the same party discipline that GOP leaders, who call the shots in the House, impose on their chairmen.

"Our [subcommittee] allocation is too small for the needs of the services," the Democrat said, "and too small to meet the many requests [for projects] we received from [House] members."

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