Congress, Pentagon in battle of the bands

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.

  • John

    This seems to be pretty standard government budget threatening. It happens on every level. The song goes like this:

    People: We need to save some money. Let’s cut the budget for xxx.
    Rep from XXX: Okay, but if you do that, we’ll shut down program yyy, which is something that people really like.
    People: Wait – you’ll cut yyy? We better increase your budget instead.

    Happens every year and at every level as far as I can tell. It’s a great tactic.

    • Jeff

      Happens all the time with schools…instead of cutting back on things students/parents would never see (cutting administrators or salaries of some workers) instead the immediate response is that we’ll have to close schools, cut art, music and sports programs that kids are already participating in.

      Remember how the state government created a catch 22 by allowing police to enforce license rules while not letting people buy licenses (i.e. fishing licenses or tabs on your car) when we had that state government shutdown?

      How about when Obama shutdown access to veteran memorial areas when all he had to do was leave them open to the public (like they normally are) and then he blamed the sequestration cuts.

      It’s shameful when politicians or administrators use obviously deceptive tactics like that and try to suggest that their actions were caused by budget cuts when the cuts could have been made elsewhere. I think those in charge should lose their jobs when politically advantageous tactics like that are used.

  • Mike Worcester

    I never served in the military, but much of my family has. This makes no sense to me. Those bands are fantastic ambassadors of the branches of service. They promote the positive and provide great entertainment.

    I also find it one of those funny political stories that two generally opposing representatives (McSally and McCullom) are on the same side of this issue.

    • Tyler

      In addition to that, military bands have a long history – for as long as we’ve had armies, we’ve had bands for them to march to.

  • Jeff

    Here’s another big issue, those on the left (and some on the right) want to ask the military to make cuts. This is a good example where we could ask for a bit of restraint on spending as per the article “Military bands spend about $437 million on instruments, uniforms and travel expenses each year, according to the Department of Defense”. Personally, I’d like to see all sectors of the military accept large cuts or at least spending stabilization (no increases in spending for multiple years) then let the military advise legislators on which programs should be strategically paired back. I’d also like to see cuts to social programs to go with the military spending cuts in order to get the US deficits down to zero within a few years and forecast of surpluses to start paying down our debt within 5-10 years.

  • KenB

    Congress can save billions in the military budget by no longer pouring it down the F-35 rat hole.

  • Angry Jonny

    This probably sounds naively simple, but I like simple sometimes. If somebody suggests that the military should spend less on music and more on weapons, they are missing an opportunity to allow the military to do peaceful things.

  • Al

    A quasi-aside: Military musicians are in a class to themselves, in the best way possible. Had the pleasure of meeting a number of them about 10 years ago while auditioning myself. At the time, I was pretty involved in the anti-war movement, and they charmed the snot out of me to the point I would’ve headed through boot camp in a minute to get that gig. Hell, I tried.

  • Kurt O

    The bands do much more than entertain at parties for politicians, and are probably better recruiting tools than TV commercials. My sister was a middle school band director, and she was a huge fan of the military bands because of their educational value. The bands provide CDs of music from different eras and information to help make lesson plans. They play concerts in the schools and meet students. A lot of the musicians go on to be teachers when they finish their military career.