The Pentagon's push to slash military benefits in the upcoming defense budget is about to make things awkward for Congress.
Lawmakers are under pressure to demonstrate fiscal restraint while showing support for troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan — and all during an election year.
The Defense Department's request to cap pay increases, increase health care fees, reduce housing allowances, and phase out commissary discounts, unveiled Monday, is tantamount to a declaration of war against organizations that represent service members, an important constituency in both parties. Although these benefits are only a small part of overall federal spending, they are difficult for lawmakers to cut.
Complicating matters, Congress set up a commission to come up with a comprehensive overhaul of military compensation and retirement benefits, which is not due to make recommendations for another year. And lawmakers have made it clear they are loath to act until it weighs in.
"That can't be done," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon. "Or if that could be done, it shouldn't be done."
Several senators also expressed concerns about the proposed personnel cuts Monday, particularly Republican Armed Services Committee members John McCain and Kelly Ayotte and ranking member James Inhofe.
McCain echoed McKeon's sentiment that it would be hard for Congress to act on personnel changes before the commission issues its report. "The tendency will be to a significant degree to not make any major decisions until we get that," he said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said that the Pentagon will have an uphill challenge to validate the cuts. "There's going to be a very tough road for them, I think. That doesn't mean they can't succeed but it means they've got a real challenge and a burden to prove that these are appropriate, that they won't affect morale, that they won't affect recruitment, that they will have a significant impact in terms of budget savings," he said.
Indeed, lawmakers know they are about to get it from all sides.
On one hand, they will be forced to find any dollar above the Pentagon's request elsewhere, and the budget sequester has shown that the tide has shifted away from unfettered defense spending. On the other hand, veterans groups just proved how strong their lobbying can be with the rapid repeal of a piece of the bipartisan budget agreement that would have reduced military pensions. The repeal sailed through Congress earlier this month, less than two months after the measure had been signed into law.
Service-member organizations are preparing to unleash an onslaught of outreach on Capitol Hill. Mike Hayden, a director of government relations with the Military Officers Association of America, who cochairs the 33-group Military Coalition, said his organization is focused on quantifying the cost of the proposed cuts as they did in previous campaigns.
An average service member with a family of four who has served for 10 years would lose $1,400 by the end of 2015, thanks to a 1 percent cap on pay raises and a 5 percent reduction in housing allowances that the Pentagon is proposing, according to Hayden's group. The out-of-pocket loss for the same two cuts would be about $2,100 for an Army captain with a family of four who has served for 10 years. Those costs do not take into account the increase in health care or TriCare fees, which the Pentagon has yet to detail, or the phaseout of discounts at commissary stores, which would lose $1 billion of their $1.4 billion subsidy over three years.
"As Secretary Hagel said, "˜We expect this is going to be a tough uphill battle,' " Hayden said. "We agree."
Analysts, lobbyists, congressional aides, and defense-industry insiders argue they have a hard time seeing the Pentagon succeeding in all of its requests, but that does not mean that personnel expenses are safe from the chopping block. Because Congress approved reducing eligible cost-of-living pay increases from 1.8 percent to 1 percent last year for military personnel, the Pentagon has an easier case to make for prevailing in its bid to extend them another year and to freeze the pay for general and flag officers.
"I expect Congress to begrudgingly go along with the proposed pay freeze for flag and general officers and pay raise of 1 percent for everyone else," said MacKenzie Eaglen, a fellow with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "But members will reject outright the base-closure request, the commissary subsidy reduction, and plan to ask for a small contribution to service members' housing allowances."
Health care fee increases are a constant battle, and are only expected to continue, so there may be a way for Congress and the Pentagon to find some middle ground. The reductions in housing allowance and commissary benefits are newer and expected to be controversial, so their outcomes are unclear.
Ultimately, though, it's the active-duty forces, rather than the retirees, veterans, or seniors, who may be the most vulnerable to the Pentagon's budget ax.
"The poor active-duty people can't organize," said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow with the left-leaning Center for American Progress. "The active-duty people can't start calling their congressmen or get people out there, but other groups can."