Congress, Pentagon in battle of the bands

Enlisted Conductor Gunnery Sgt. Michael Maschmeier, leads the U.S. Marine Corps Band from New Orleans in singing prior to the christening amphibious transport dock, the John P. Murtha in 2015. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

We’ve gotten used to schools whacking bands and orchestras because of budget cuts, but the seemingly inexhaustible supply of money to the military has put military bands in harm’s way, Military Times reports today.

Military bands spend about $437 million on instruments, uniforms and travel expenses each year, according to the Department of Defense. So lawmakers in the House of Representatives think that money could be better spent elsewhere.

On his blog, Lt. Col. Domingos Robinson, and Army band officer and conductor, says a miltary band vs. national defense is a false dichotomy.

Representative McSally, the author of the amendment to the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that would limit the mission of military bands, seems to think that by eliminating all of these mission-sets, the military will save millions upon millions of dollars (for an Air Force weapon system that is scheduled to be retired anyways), solve world hunger, balance the budget, and erase the national debt. Okay, slight exaggeration on my part…but, based upon the fervor of Ms. McSally’s “arguments” either she knows something about military bands that I don’t — perhaps we employ expensive rocket ships I don’t know about to go to TDY? — or maybe she didn’t make her high school’s choir? Based on the performances you can find of her on YouTube, the fact that she calls herself a vocalist is insulting to the military musicians who have worked on their craft for years to be where they are today. Whatever the reason, of all the things the federal government and the Dept. of Defense spend money on, destroying the ability of military bands to do their mission on behalf of the American people is where the line is being drawn; seriously?

The USO and civilian bands will pick up the slack, she says. Really? At what cost? When senior leaders need to entertain their guests in advance of key leader engagements (something that is done on a daily basis in DC and throughout the world), we’ll just hire musicians to provide entertainment…except now you’re spending more money, not less. You see, military musicians don’t get paid per mission. Little to no money will be saved, because they are salaried employees just like every other Service Member. They don’t get paid extra for working 18-hour days or nights or weekends like civilians would. They don’t get paid extra for playing multiple instruments like civilians. Need them to play a mission to set the conditions for high level talks between nations? Need it to be tailored to the specific tastes of the people engaged in those talks? Need it to happen in two days? Need to make that foreign dignitary cry or laugh because we will play or sing a song from his homeland better than he’s ever heard it before? Military bands do that every day. Good luck being able to replicate that without us.

The move to cut the bands comes from Rep. Martha McSally, an Arizona Republican and former Air Force colonel.

“It used to just really irritate me when I would be going to an event, say for a holiday party that a general officer is hosting, and we would have military men and women in uniform entertaining us,” she told Politico last month. “I used to be uncomfortable with it — that we’ve got these enlisted troops whose job was to entertain generals and their guests at various events.”

In 2011, Minnesota DFLer. Betty McCollum proposed a $200 million cap on military band spending at a time the Pentagon was seeking $325 million. The Pentagon won.

How much is the cost of the bands in the big picture of the defense budget in the United States? Based on a $600 billion budget, about six hours. That’s what a $12,000 tuba will do to the bottom line.