Band Budgets Facing The Music: The Marine Corps is getting rid of a few good bands

CQ Weekly
December 22, 2011
Pg. 2637

Vantage Point
Band Budgets Facing The Music

By John M. Donnelly, CQ Staff

The Marine Corps is getting rid of a few good bands.

In an economy move, the Corps is deactivating a 50-member band at its logistics base in Albany, Ga., and a band of similar size at its air-ground combat center in the California desert at Twentynine Palms.

The decision “was one of many fiscally informed, careful trade-offs,” said Lt. Col.Stewart T. Upton, a Marine Corps spokesman, in a written statement. “Ultimately, it was determined that most of the command and community support requirements of the two bands could be met by other Marine Corps bands in their respective regions.”

Bringing down costs by stopping the music, though, isn’t popular with the broader military, nor, finally, with Congress. The House this summer adopted amendments to fiscal 2012 defense authorization and appropriations bills that put a $200 million limit on military bands — 40 percent less than the $325 million the Pentagon requested — but the language was quietly removed by conferees last week.

The armed forces have 154 military bands — 71 of them active-duty units and the rest National Guard and Reserve bands — with some 5,000 full-time musicians. The Army alone has just over 100 bands. The Marine Corps will now have 10, including the oldest (established by Congress in 1798) and arguably the most famous: the “President’s Own” United States Marine Band, which plays at White House events and other ceremonies around the capital.

The bands are used to boost morale, public relations and recruiting. For example, the Navy’s 728 enlisted and commissioned personnel in 13 bands not only perform at the usual ceremonies, but also are the sea service’s only representatives in many parts of the United States and the world, says Lt. Cmdr.Dwaine Whitham, head of the Navy music program.

“Our motto is, ‘America’s Navy: A Global Force for Good,’ ” he says. “And what better way to demonstrate that than to reach into these countries, where we don’t have a lot of presence, with military bands? It’s soft power projection, if you will.”

Nonetheless, the bands are peripheral to the military’s main job, and even former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates wondered out loud why there are more military band members than there are Foreign Service officers.

Some members of Congress, intent on shrinking government spending in general, have sought to limit spending on the bands.

Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum , a member of the House Appropriations Committee, succeeded in adding an amendment to the military spending and authorizations bills imposing the $200 million limit.

“There is no doubt that bands are important,” McCollum said in July. “We all enjoy listening to military bands and cherish the traditions of military music. But at a time of fiscal crisis, $200 million must be enough for ceremonial music, concerts, choir performance and country music jam sessions.”

The House adopted her amendment, 226-201. Ninety Republicans voted with her.

But conferees restored the money, leading McCollum to issue an angry statement. “By protecting a bloated budget for the military’s bands,” she said, “it would appear the Senate is elevating pomp and circumstance to a national security priority at the expense of fiscal responsibility.”

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