Armed Services members back entitlement reform, but differ on details

A senior House Democrat and a GOP counterpart on the House Armed Services Committee said entitlement reform is needed to help right Washington's fiscal ship — but their financial prescriptions diverged greatly on taxes and defense cuts.

Washington should use a "gradual approach" to pay down its debt, aiming to raise federal revenues while also trimming entitlements and defense budgets, Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithTop Dem expresses 'serious concerns' about plan to cut B from Pentagon agencies Rethinking how we handle development finance Overnight Defense: Pompeo grilled by Dems at nomination hearing | Faces tight panel vote | Mattis insists no decision yet on Syria | Dems seek answers on National Guard border deployment MORE (D-Wash.) said.

While some lawmakers want to make massive cuts this year to federal spending, Smith, the Armed Services ranking member, called for a plan that stretches out beyond five years. 

"Hundreds of economists" have concluded slashing deep and fast would do more harm than good to the economy, Smith said at a conference in Arlington, Va.

Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee’s seapower and projection forces subcommittee, targeted massive entitlement cuts, saying the Constitution clearly states national defense is a requirement.

"You’re not going to solve the problem unless you solve those," he said, referring to entitlements.

Akin compared the nation's fiscal situation to the Civil War.

Few recognized that conflict would be as severe as it turned out, Akin said, and the fallout from the economic downturn could be worse than many are predicting.

He said America could go down two paths: One, to look more like Europe with ever-larger social spending; or, two, "to actually deal with the problems."

The first option, Akin predicted, will lead to "public employees rioting in the streets and asking for more and more." He referenced "riots in the streets" one more time during his talk of swollen entitlement programs.

Akin said he replies "no" when asked if everything should be on the table.

But Smith offered a much different view of what kind of plan should be enacted.

"You have to raise taxes, cut entitlements and cut defense" to right the nation's fiscal course, Smith said. "Yet, we can't say that."

He noted that the U.S. tax system "is not good at raising the revenue" needed to help pare the debt, adding entitlements and defense spending continue to rise.

"Something's got to give," Smith said.

The national discourse about Washington's finances should move away from "tarring and feathering people" when they say such things to "an honest debate," Smith said.

At the same conference, the Pentagon's deputy F-35 program chief, Air Force Maj. Gen. C.D. Moore, said the next batch of F-35 fighters is largely on hold until Congress passes a 2011 defense spending bill.

"There is some uncertainty with that" due to Congress' budget stalemate, Moore said during the conference.

Without lawmakers' approval, program officials can only say they "think" the next contract with prime contractor Lockheed Martin will be for a number of jets "in the low 30s," Moore said.

He said the Pentagon "needs relief from the CR environment" to move forward, referring to the current continuing resolution that has the military locked at 2010 funding levels. DoD officials say a CR fails to grant them needed flexibility to execute hardware program plans.

Program officials plan to begin flight tests "in the 1 Sept. timeframe," Moore said.

In a change, the first two conventional take-off-and-landing variants being developed for the Air Force will spend four or five months at Edwards Air Force Base, Cailf., instead of being sent to Eglin AFB, Fla., to start flight tests.

The added stop will be for "maturity tests" to let program officials determine if the jets are indeed ready for the rigors of flight testing.

From there, those two fighters will join others at Eglin to begin the flight test part of the program.

"There is no doubt in my mind" that flight tests will begin later this year, Moore said.

He also said the F-35 production line is "holding to schedule," adding: "This is the first time I could stand in front of you and say that."