(Press gaggle. Participating were Lawrence Di Rita, acting assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, and David Chu, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness.)
Di Rita: I appreciate you all coming over. We've prevailed upon Dr. David Chu to join us and provide a little bit of reality check to this it sounds like an immensely overheated story.
Q: First, do you know anything about the power outages?
Di Rita: What I'm seeing here. I know I was heading for Detroit tomorrow.
With that, I don't think there's any need for an opener from me. I'll just turn it over to David.
David, we'll be on the record except for those points when David may ask that we go no background.
Chu: Thank you for the chance to get together. I'd just like very quickly to put to rest what I understand has been a burgeoning rumor that somehow we are going to reduce compensation for those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is not true. We are not going to reduce their compensation.
There is an open issue about how we're going to do that which depends on exactly how the conference report in the Congress comes out on some technical allowance issues, but the bottom line is we will at least maintain the compensation of those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. We're not going to cut their pay or anything like that.
Q: The point was when this extra money provision expires in September, the report was that you were opposed to extending it.
Chu: That's a separate issue. The department has a variety of pay and allowance powers already with which it plans to maintain the compensation of those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan should the current allowance provisions expire. Whether they expire or not is a question which we don't have the answer to. But actually we would prefer, and I think that's how this rumor got started, we would prefer to use those other compensation powers as our way of ensuring that we target these compensation benefits on the troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Q: What are these other powers? What do you mean by those?
Chu: We have a variety of other pays. We have hardship duty pay, for example, we have some incentive pay with which we can compensate people in Iraq should these allowances fall back to levels prior to April of this year when Congress enacted new levels with which we can and will -- we haven't chosen which one yet -- maintain compensation in Iraq. Obviously exactly what we do depends on what Congress does also. If they pass some other allowance or extend the existing allowance it will change exactly what we do on this end. But there is no intention of allowing compensation for those serving in Iraq or Afghanistan to fall.
Di Rita: The premise that we would somehow disadvantage U.S. forces in a combat environment --
Chu: Is absolutely wrong.
Di Rita: It's absurd. It's not even wrong, it's absurd.
Chu: That's why I was so startled when this story arose. We are actually looking at the opposite issue. What should we be doing for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as appropriate for their circumstance, especially those who are serving long periods of time. We had discussions underway at this very moment of R&R type powers for the commander, some of which he already has but which we are looking at extending.
Q: So how do you explain the statement that says you hadn't budgeted for these increases and therefore you didn't want the increases?
Chu: What I think you're pointing to is one piece of a very thick technical appeal document that speaks to the question do we want to extend the language Congress used in the Family Separation Allowance and Imminent Danger Pay statutes. And no, we don't think we need to extend that language. That's a different statement from are we going to reduce compensation for those in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I emphasized --
Q: But nobody ever --
Chu: No one ever said we're going to reduce compensation in Iraq and Afghanistan. People have jumped to a conclusion based upon the fact that we have said --
Di Rita: People have said it today, but nobody in this department.
Q: It sounds like it amounts to the same thing. Unless you're going to --
Chu: No, no, no, no. I don't mean to be a technocrat here, but we have plenty of authority that we think is frankly better suited to the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan to maintain that compensation at the level it now stands without this power. And what we're saying in this document is we don't need this authority. What Congress really would do if they extend this is actually pay it to a lot of people who aren't in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So we said look, we're just fine, guys. We have plenty of authority. We have never said we're going to cut -- I couldn't believe this rumor getting started. We have never said we are. We haven't touched this issue. In fact the whole debate inside the department has been the other side. What do we need to do for the people serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially those there for long periods of time.
Q: So if that money goes away you would make up for it in some other way, is that what you're saying?
Chu: Well you're dealing here not with money. You're dealing here with authority. This is not an appropriation. This is the authorization bill. This gives us authority. In fact actually this mandates, this is a bit of entitlement kind of thing, this mandates pay. We're saying we've got plenty of authority. We'll use that authority. In fact we are busy debating how best to use that authority. We haven’t come to our conclusion yet. All we're saying in this appeal document which actually is a much larger document, all sorts of issues in it, is we don't need this authority, guys. Don't muck it up.
Q: Mr. Chu, a couple of things. First of all is the continuation of these increased payments not budgeted for in the '04 budget? And does that create -- If the answer is yes does that create something of a problem that you're going to have to find a work-around for? And secondly, you've said repeatedly that the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will not have their pay cut. Does that mean that you're looking at a situation where maybe people if you're at Prince Sultan, if you're in Diego Garcia, if you're loading planes in Germany for Liberia where you may be entitled to some of these benefits now -- imminent danger pay or something -- that you're looking at that and ways of tightening that up a bit?
Chu: Let me go to your first question. As our statement on the record indicated, the increase in these two specific allowances was voted by the Congress after the President's budget was formulated. So Congress said okay, let's up these allowances. Therefore by definition there isn't an explicit line in the President's budget for that increased amount.
Now a different issue is whether we're going to continue compensation at present levels in fiscal '04. What I'm saying on the record for Iraq and Afghanistan, absolutely yes, we are going to continue compensation for those folks.
The way the nation has financed many of the costs, the incremental costs associated with the war in Iraq and its aftermath and the war in Afghanistan and its aftermath has been through supplemental appropriations. So it’s my -- depending -- It does kind of depend on what authority we use, but my anticipation is that whatever happened we were going to have to ask for supplemental appropriations. That's an issue no matter what happens.
Now it's quite conceivable, again the appropriations bill is still open. It's very conceivable Congress will fund whatever the authorization committed does; it's conceivable they'll fund something else. Who knows?
Di Rita: Also, let's keep the context in mind. For three years in a row we've provided gradual increases to the pay accounts, in many areas targeted those for the more distressed ratings and distressed pay grades. This Administration has an admirable record, together with Congress, of providing pay raises over the last three years to bring our military back to where they sort of lost ground in the late '90s.
That's the philosophy. That philosophy is unchanged.
Chu: If I may, I'd like to emphasize a point that Larry made that I think is very important here that's germane to the misunderstanding that has arisen.
Throughout the Administration, starting with the President's billion dollar target pay increase, he has emphasized targeting. That is, we want to put the available funds to the places of greatest need. Those are at the moment in terms of what's happening here, Iraq and Afghanistan. So we're trying to be careful not to underwrite broad-based changes that aren't targeted to these.
Q: Just to be clear, there was never any intention on the part of the Defense Department to even look at eliminating these increases. Is that correct?
Chu: I want to be careful about the reference to "these increases". The department's position is to maintain compensation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now how we --
Q: At the same level?
Chu: At the same level. Total compensation. What counts is the bottom line. Remember the typical person -- E-5, E-6, E-7 in Iraq/Afghanistan is being paid $4,000 or $5,000 a month. So what's at issue here is around $200 a month in these changed levels in these allowances.
We're going to try to maintain total compensation. Now we would prefer to do it with a different set of authorities than are at stake in this authorization issue. From that difference, unfortunately, this rumor has that we’re going to cut compensation in Iraq and Afghanistan. No, we're not.
Q: Is there also a difference in criteria? In other words where you may be reducing combat danger pay but increasing something else?
Chu: It could be. We haven't decided which instrument to use. Obviously it's a bit contingent on what Congress does. So if they do something we have to be sure we're thoughtful in responding to that direction.
Q: A second question if I could from just a minute ago, one of the things that's been written about this sort of suggests that people may be working in Diego Garcia or ships at sea, although that was not one of the things specifically listed in the Persian Gulf. Are you looking at narrowing the range or the scope, the number of people that would be eligible for even a danger pay, for example, as part of this process?
Chu: Imminent danger pay boundaries are constantly reviewed because of course there was a different situation pre-September 11, 2001 than there was on September 12th; a different situation before hostilities in Iraq from post-hostilities Afghanistan; a different situation today; so we constantly review where the boundaries are for all these issues that are threat-specific. That goes on all the time.
Di Rita: And it frankly would not be satisfactory to start saying "and therefore in this area this might happen" because as David said, we review these all the time. Clearly the allegations are wrong that there will be some effect on Afghanistan and Iraq, and to get into whether this patch of ocean will get it and this patch won't is just speculation that we --
Chu: And let me emphasize. It is our desire to ensure those people who are facing real dangers and real hardship are compensated. So it goes up for some, depending upon that; and at some point in the future an area that was once thought to be a problem area will no longer be so. So it will change.
Q: You've got the 5th Fleet at sea in the Persian Gulf during wartime operations. I assume they're eligible at that point for imminent danger pay?
Chu: Your excellent point is that units at sea and the kind of threats they face and whether they're in these various zones or not will change depending on the threat situation. We don't do it every day, this is not continuous, but at finite points over time we look at are we being appropriate in the kinds of pays that we're offering.
Q: Why don't you want the current authorization?
Q: I have one more question, too.
Di Rita: But we're about done.
Chu: Why don't we do two more and then we're finished.
Q: Why don't you want the current authorization? Do you have problems with that?
Chu: It's too broad-based. It's like using a sledgehammer to hit a small nail.
Di Rita: And what we have seen in the past three years of the approach the President has taken which is to be smart about how we apply pay raises, we've seen the results in recruitment and retention that we desire, which is that recruitment and retention in those key areas remain at the levels they need to be.
Chu: We want to be sure we put the monies the taxpayers of America make available to us in the places of greatest need.
Q: And that doesn't let you do that?
Chu: That doesn't let us do that.
Di Rita: It may not let us do that.
Chu: It may not. Depending on the wording.
Di Rita: It's premature to say --
Q: So you're giving premium pay to people who are not in harm's way right now. Is that the idea?
Chu: There are two allowances at stake here. One is called family separation allowance, one is imminent danger pay. Family separation allowance under the words of the statute as they were enacted goes to anyone who is separated from his or her family for more than 30 days.
That means if I'm stationed in Newport, Rhode Island and I am detailed to Pearl Harbor, Honolulu for more than 30 days, I get family separation allowance. Is that where the taxpayers want us to put our money?
Q: On a pretty good trip, too.
Chu: If you like Hawaii. (Laughter.)
Q: Does your categorical statement that compensation as a whole will not be reduced for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan apply to troops in Kuwait or other --
Chu: I think I want to be where Larry is, and as your question indicated. We constantly review all areas. We're not out to --
Q: Some people will see some decrease then if this thing goes away.
Chu: Obviously if it goes down there are some people who will get less, yes. But the point that I think we want to emphasize is the people that the Congress intended to help, and that was if you look back at the words of the Floor debate at the time that this was enacted, were the troops in danger? The troops now in Iraq, the troops in Afghanistan, we're not planning to cut their compensation.
Di Rita: To be fair, folks, let's all remember why we're here. Because somebody made the allegation that the Bush Administration's decision to cut the pay of our troops in Iraq is unconscionable. It's simply not going to happen.
Chu: No decision like that has been --
Di Rita: Nobody went to the Floor of the Senate and said the Bush Administration decision to cut the pay of our troops in Diego Garcia is unconscionable. We don't --
Q: Larry, that's a statement by a politician. That's not a news report --
Di Rita: So we're doing our best to educate you. But you can take this to the nth degree and it will be hard to decide --
Chu: Compensation allowance --
Di Rita: -- answer it.
Chu: -- base compensation around the globe shifts over time. I'll take a trivial example. Housing allowances. They vary based upon what housing costs are. No one's going to go to the Floor and say it's unconscionable that the housing allowance for Providence, Rhode Island has dropped by $3.
Di Rita: Things fluctuate. But the philosophy is, target it where it's needed the most. It's clearly needed in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are other areas in that same region where it is needed and where it will be --
Chu: And we'll continue to pay it. We may even pay more in some cases.
Di Rita: How it shakes out over time, we'll do our best to make sure people stay well informed on that.
Q: Is that something you're looking at?
Di Rita: That's about all we have time for.
Chu: We are looking at --
Di Rita: Thank you, gentlemen, ladies.