In a government shutdown, who will pay US military?

US military operations from Afghanistan to Japan will continue even if there is a government shutdown, Pentagon officials say. What they don't know is whether troops will get paychecks.

Denis Sinyakov/Reuters
US Army pilot Joe Rogers works out at his base at Camp Dwyer in Afghanistan's Helmand Province Wednesday. Troop pay for the US military is becoming a major political issue with a government shutdown looming.

One of the more politically sensitive prospects facing Congress in a potential government shutdown is whether US troops will continue to get their paychecks.

But on this point, the Pentagon has been mute, leading some to suggest that the Obama administration might be using the specter of the US military going without pay to pressure Republicans into a deal.

In response to a question about rumors that US troops at war will stop receiving their paychecks as of April 15, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said Tuesday, “I don’t have a definitive answer … to relay to our forces in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

“We have not been able yet to arrive at a conclusive determination about how everyone’s pay would be impacted by this,” Mr. Morrell told reporters in a briefing.

Pentagon officials say they cannot offer a definitive answer because they have not received guidance about which operations and personnel are essential – and therefore would continue to be funded in a shutdown. But critics note that the Pentagon has already offered assurances that operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Japan would not be affected.

Why would it not, then, know about troop pay, asks Tom Donnelly, director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

It's “a pretty good indicator of how they are willing to play politics,” he says, adding that the move is not unique to the Obama administration. “It’s the usual executive branch bid: ‘If you cut my budget proposal, babies will die.’ ”

US troop pay is “a stick that they can try to beat the opposition with,” Mr. Donnelly says.

Ultimately, the political impact of a showdown is “a little unclear,” but he notes that accusations that either party has harmed troops would not be in anyone’s interest.

Republican lawmakers, for their part, have been making a concerted effort to downplay the notion that troops may not get paid.

House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday suggested that Congress should pass another continuing resolution that would keep the government open for at least another week and fund the Department of Defense through the rest of the fiscal year.

Even without such a measure, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said, “I think we’ll keep men and women of the military paid.”

Senator McCain, speaking at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters Wednesday, cited the Food and Forage Act of 1861, which permits the government to buy “clothing, subsistence, forage, fuel, quarters, transportation, or medical and hospital supplies” for troops.

Enacted during the Civil War, the law was also used in the wake of the 9/11 attacks by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

In a further effort to address the issue, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R) of Texas on Wednesday introduced the Ensuring Pay for Our Military Act of 2011. The bill would ensure that soldiers get paid in the event of a government shutdown.

“I am not willing to place the well-being of our military personnel and their families in the balance as we await a budget agreement,” Senator Hutchinson said in a statement.

For now, however, troop pay remains wrapped up in a “game of chicken,” Donnelly adds, “that is going to go on until the very last moment.”

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