The Maine Reason Cutting Defense Spending Is So Tough

A long-standing benefit

There was a report out the other day suggesting one thing the Pentagon might have to cut, as it tightens its belt, is the $1.3 billion it provides the Defense Commissary Agency, which runs 252 grocery stores around the world. Sure, those kinds of places made sense when troops and their families were stationed in far-off corners of the globe or a desolate stateside post 100 miles from the nearest A&P. But today, hard by nearly every major military base in the country is a Walmart or something similar, selling goods at bargain prices. And when the average member of the military makes more than 80% of his or her fellow civilians with the same level of education, why should those civilians be footing the bill for cut-rate military shopping?

Fair questions. But don't go asking them Down East anytime soon. Usually, when Maine's congressional delegation gets its dander up on the military front, it has something to do with the Navy not playing nice with its home state Bath Iron Works, which has been cranking out warships since 1884. But the Pentagon has decided to shut down the commissary that served the recently-closed Brunswick Naval Air Station in an effort to save $2 million annually. Judging from the reaction, you'd think the U.S. military had declared war on the state. "Maine has sacrificed more than its share for the U.S.," a retired sailor told the local paper. "You have to ask yourself, what is the U.S. doing for Maine?"

The four members of Maine's congressional delegation tossed a depth charge at the Pentagon Thursday once the Defense Department confirmed that the commissary – basically a supermarket – would close Oct. 8. It sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta insisting he reverse the decision. "This is extremely disappointing news for the servicemen and women, military retirees and families who live in the Brunswick-Topsham region,” Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe says. “That these patriots must lose a key resource in their community during these difficult economic times is ill-informed and inexcusable."

The spat offers a preview of why cutting defense – which must be done – is so difficult. If a neighborhood nick like this creates such a firestorm, what chance is there for the wholesale changes needed to put the U.S. military on a sound footing for the 21st Century? If we can't cut out government-subsidized bread and milk for a shuttered military post, what hope is there for recalibrating the strategic nuclear triad, the $382 billion F-35 program, or missile defense?

Listen to Maine's lawmakers protesting the decision. "This decision directly impacts the lives of thousands of Mainers and needs to be reversed," Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud argues. "Those who have served their county don't deserve to have the rug pulled out from under them like this, especially at a time our economy continues to struggle."

"It is a benefit that we owe military personnel and retirees,” adds Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree. "Shopping at a commissary can save a family an average of $4,400 a year and in this tight economy that goes a long way." (The commissary system says regular shoppers can save 30%.)

But let's focus on the big picture here: a military base has closed, and folks - including at least one member of Congress - think nearby cut-rate shopping – subsidized by the rest of us - is something we "owe" military personnel, retirees and their families for the rest of their lives. The nation is in economic peril, drowning in debt, and this is what the Maine congressional delegation believes is worth its time?

Hand-to-hand combat broke out on the Portland Press-Herald's website after it reported the story Thursday.

"There's no more base!" one poster noted. "There are very few military families left in Maine. This isn't about shutting out junior enlisted people who are underpaid (and they are). This is about closing a commissary that served a base that is no longer there!"

The rejoinder: "Please feel free to tell the Army National Guard that they, while being active duty, do not need or deserve a commissary. `Very few military families left in Maine'…they would be surprised to know that they no longer live in the state of Maine…"

There's a Walmart Supercenter close by. Unlike the commissary, it's open seven days a week, and seems to offer all the groceries an American family might need. If it's good enough for 100 million Americans a week, it should be good enough for the folks in Maine.

Of course, if this doesn't square with your impression of Yankees' skin-flinty reputation for dismissing government help (I can say it; I'm one), it gets even worse: the Maine delegation is pushing to change federal law to permit the sale of alcohol and tobacco products at the commissary. That way, the expected flood of profits from drunk and hacking – but happy – commissary customers could be used to help keep it open.

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