‘Commissary issue itself is radioactive’

Tom Philpott

Tom Philpott

By Tom Philpott

Military Update

All seven members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified last week on the need to slow growth in military compensation and apply dollars saved to underfunded readiness accounts for training, equipment and spare parts.

But their united front for easing current budget burdens cracked over the notion of slashing savings for commissary shoppers.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos called the proposal to cut commissary appropriations, from $1.4 billion yearly down to $400 million within three years, and the projected cut in average shopper savings from 30 percent down to 10 percent, “a sore point for me.”

“That’s a 66 percent drop in savings for my Marines. I don’t like that,” Amos told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Families don’t either.

“The commissary issue itself is radioactive,” Amos said.

At the same hearing, Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, defended lowering the appropriation for the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) in increments, starting with $200 million next year, and suggesting the initial impact at least would be modest.

“We think DeCA can find at least the first-year savings through efficiencies, not price increases, especially since we exempted them from the 20 percent staff cuts that everyone else is taking,” Winnefeld said.

Later, Winnefeld said first-year savings might be achieved if Congress would just repeal a law requiring commissaries to stock only brand names.

It’s a law “apparently lobbied for by the food industry,” Winnefeld said, which “takes money right out of our people’s pockets. It really does.”

Industry sources said brand names do generate higher profits for suppliers but the issue is more complex and less disturbing than Winnefeld implied. Brand name suppliers can afford to support DeCA with trade offs in store services such as free stocking of shelves and with product promotions.

DeCA provided a statement explaining that commissaries evolved by design into a brand-name system to ensure “worldwide availability of quality, recognizable brand-name products such as Kellogg’s cereals, Kraft cheeses.”

A brand name “bestows a known quality assurance that our military families rely upon wherever they serve. Providing food security and a familiar ‘taste of home’ is particularly important for those stationed overseas,” DeCA explained.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at:
milupdate@aol.com