By Marjorie Censer / February 26, 2009 at 5:00 AM

As the economy declines and Defense Department spending tightens, the amount of money going to National Guard recruiting and retention will get close scrutiny, according to the director of the National Guard Bureau.

Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley said today that the quality of selected Guard recruits has improved in recent months.

“What we see now in the last six months is the economy turn,” he said during a breakfast with defense reporters. “We have a lot of young men and women who are interested in the National Guard, and we are now able to pick the absolute best and brightest of this young pool of talent.”

But, he said, the question now is: “Can we continue to compensate young people at the rate that we have to join us and to stay with us?”

Decisions on that issue won't be made prior to the release of the president's budget, McKinley said, but, at that point, “we'll go back to the drawing board and put dollars at programs.

“And I'm sure that we're going to look at every program in our portfolio -- recruiting and retention is a big-ticket item, especially in the Army National Guard,” he added.

“Some significant chunks of (the Army Guard's) budget have gone into those areas, and I just don't know if we'll be able to sustain that,” McKinley told reporters.

We reported more on what McKinley had to say this morning:

The elevation of the National Guard Bureau director to a four-star position was a "fundamental" change that has provided him access to the most senior-level meetings in the Army, Air Force and Defense Department, according to the general now in that position.

Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley, the first four-star NGB director, said today -- about 100 days into his new role – that he is “very, very pleased” with the access he now has to senior decision-makers in the Pentagon.

The fiscal year 2008 Defense Authorization Act provided a fourth star for the chief of the National Guard Bureau, mandated that at least one deputy head of U.S. Northern Command be a Guard officer and expanded the bureau’s charter, among other actions.

During a breakfast with reporters in Washington today, McKinley said he's “been welcomed into the inner circles of the United States Army by (Chief of Staff) Gen. (George) Casey.

“He has put me -- as an Air Force officer -- on his four-star leadership team. I've met twice with the senior four-star leaders of the United States Army,” he continued. “I've been involved prior to this on the Air Force side with (Chief of Staff) Gen. Norton Schwartz and his predecessor Gen. Moseley at their Coronas -- their senior decision-making bodies. I've been on the councils that deliberate the budget and what's new . . . is I have access now to (Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman) Adm. Mullen and to (Defense) Secretary Robert Gates.”