The battle of the budget is an annual rite of America’s military spending that is rarely resolved on time. This year, as in nine of the 10 past years, the Pentagon is likely to start its fiscal year under a continuing resolution — basically a stopgap measure that keeps funding at roughly existing levels. With about $740 billion in play, the stakes are huge and the competing interests commensurate.
Congress ought to ensure that one relative drop in that ocean does not get swept away: Stars and Stripes. For all the wrong reasons, the venerable daily newspaper of America’s military service members was dropped from the Pentagon’s budget request this year, and the Department of Defense told the paper to prepare to close down at the end of September.
Democratic and Republican senators pushed back, and then President Trump — under assault over reports that he disparaged fallen and wounded service members — declared in a tweet that funds to the paper will not be cut “under my watch” and that “It will continue to be a wonderful source of information to our Great Military!” Soon after, a Pentagon spokesman announced that the decision to close the paper had been reversed.
That should be the end of the matter. But a hybrid outfit like Stars and Stripes — a Department of Defense organization partly funded by the military and a newspaper authorized by Congress to be independent of the military command — does not qualify for continuous funding in a continuing resolution. Congress must do that.
Initially printed during the Civil War and a fixture of military life for generations, Stars and Stripes is today a multimedia operation that reaches about 1.4 million service members even on the most remote bases where there is no internet or cellphone service, with day-to-day coverage of news most important to them — pay, benefits, health issues and the like. The paper has never shied away from reporting on issues the Pentagon may prefer to keep quiet — a recent headline, for example was “Why is Fort Hood the Army’s most crime-ridden post?”
Last February, however, the Pentagon proposed cutting all its funding for the newspaper. The money, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said, was needed for high-priority weapons systems. Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon’s acting comptroller at the time, added that the paper “is probably not the best way that we communicate any longer.” Last month, the Pentagon told Stars and Stripes to prepare to shut down on Sept. 30, at the end of the current fiscal year, and to dissolve its organization by Jan. 31, 2021.
The arguments are specious. The $15.5 million line item is a negligible fraction — one-48,000th — of the Pentagon’s budget. (That covers about half the paper’s needs; the rest comes from advertising and subscriptions.) And the paper was never the Pentagon’s voice. What is far more likely is that Mr. Esper wanted to silence a source of information he couldn’t control.
With Mr. Trump now on record with full-throated support for the paper, it’s Congress’s turn to ensure that “the Stripes,” as it is known to generations of grateful military readers, does not fall through any fiscal cracks.