Washington — The old military budget questions -- guns vs. butter, and whether equipment costs should take priority over "people" costs in the armed forces -- appear again before the Pentagon, the White House, and on Capitol Hill this week.
Senate and House conferees must meet to resolve the question of whether a balanced federal budget should contain about $6.2 billion more for defense than President Carter requested.
The new congressional effort begins after a House vote of 241 to 141 rejected a budget that found President Carter and the US Joint Chiefs of Staff on opposite sides of the defense spending fence. Both Republicans and Democrats voted against the measure.
Air Force Gen. David C. Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and other top military men had approved a fiscal 1981 $153.7 billion defense authorization, out of a total federal budget of $613.3 billion.
So did House Republican leaders, who after the May 30 House vote against the budget passed a motion instructing House conferees, when they next meet with Senate conferees, to accept the $153.7 billion figure previously approved by the Senate.
President Carter, however, and Speaker of the House Thomas P. O'Neill (D) of Massachusetts have said, in effect, that the $153.7 billion is $6.2 billion more than is needed for national security.
General Jones, whom Mr. Carter has just reappointed for a new two- year term, disagrees. Increased defense spending, he argued last week, "is needed because of the added tensions in the Persian Gulf area. This country needs to expand more in defense than is in the budget."
President Carter, responding on CBS Television's "Face the Nation" June 1, said the Joint Chiefs' stand was "compatible with their duties."
The heads of civilian government departments, he said, would also answer "yes" if asked whether they needed more funds. The President went on to recall that following a 30 percent Republican defense spending cut preceding his administration, he now aimed at 4 percent annual defense spending growth after inflation.
Republican presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan and his advisers, however, agree with General Jones.Governor Reagan, alone among the other presidential contenders, including President Carter, has urged that the US withdraw the signed but unratified SALT II arms-limitation treaty with the Soviets, and "not abide by its terms prior to ratification."
The Reagan statement was a response to a survey of presidential aspirants by the nonpartisan Arms Control Association here. Mr. Carter, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and independent candidate Rep. John B. Anderson of Illinois all urged a return to the SALT process with the Soviets, provided they withdrew from Afghanistan.
President Carter and Defense Secretary Harold Brown charged in letters to Congress before last week's voting that the $6.2 billion Congress had added was unbalancing the budget. General Jones and the Joint Chiefs did not see the letters before they were sent.
However, General Jones had endorsed at least one of the administration's objections: that $600 million to develop the Rockwell B-1 bomber as a cruise missile carrier was unneeded. The administration and the Joint Chiefs have preferred to adapt the existing Boeing B-52 bomber force for cruise missiles instead.
Privately, top Pentagon analysts warn that such cuts will further reduce readiness and capability of US forces, already severely affected by rising fuel cost and ammunition shortfalls, which have cut both training and operations.
High-ranking officers recently told this reporter they would give slightly more priority to meeting manpower costs than to hardware in future military budgets, because trained personnel are leaving the armed forces for much better-paid civilian jobs.
Service morale has suffered, says a new report from the Association of the US Army, from the "selling of voluntary military service as a 'job,' not as a 'calling,' and the headlong rush of inflation. . . . Today we have about 400, 000 military families with incomes below the federal poverty level and $12 million in food stamps passed through [military] commissary cash registers last year."