Military Benefits Likely to Remain Sacred to Congress

Pentagon officials will be forced to make other sacrifices.

US Senator Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, walks to the weekly policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, October 15, 2013. Washington's risky game of political brinkmanship neared crisis point Tuesday, with no deal yet nailed down to avoid a catastrophic US debt default, just 36 hours before a crucial deadline. Despite global fears that the US government could run out of money to pay its bills on Thursday, the rift cleaving US politics and a fight for the soul of the Republican Party thwarted compromise. Hopes a nascent deal between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate would open the way to resolve a fight over raising the US borrowing limit and reopening government proved over optimistic.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
Jan. 8, 2014, 4 p.m.

For Wash­ing­ton law­makers who meas­ure the na­tion­al debt in tril­lions, $6 bil­lion is a pit­tance. But for many mil­it­ary vet­er­ans — and key lob­by­ing groups — the $6 bil­lion in pen­sion cuts con­tained in Decem­ber’s budget com­prom­ise meant a broken prom­ise.

And it’s not a breach they’re will­ing to let Wash­ing­ton for­get.

In a Twit­ter town hall Tues­day night with the theme #KeepY­our­Prom­ise, ser­vice mem­bers and their fam­il­ies ex­pressed their out­rage. Alia Reese, a mil­it­ary spouse, tweeted a pic­ture of a little boy pressed to a com­puter screen. “This is how Daddy has read to him for over half his life,” she wrote. “We have up­held our end now you do yours.”

Mil­it­ary per­son­nel is­sues have long been sac­red on Cap­it­ol Hill, and many de­fense watch­ers — from Pentagon of­fi­cials to lob­by­ists — were sur­prised when the fi­nal deal between Sen. Patty Mur­ray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ry­an, R-Wis., emerged in­clud­ing a pro­vi­sion de­creas­ing the an­nu­al cost-of-liv­ing ad­just­ment for work­ing-age mil­it­ary re­tir­ees by 1 per­cent over the next dec­ade.

Now it ap­pears pro­ponents of the cut may have claimed vic­tory too soon. Backed by vet­er­an out­rage, mil­it­ary-ad­vocacy groups have mo­bil­ized, and le­gis­lat­ive pro­pos­als on Cap­it­ol Hill to re­verse the pen­sion cuts are gain­ing steam. More than a dozen pro­pos­als have been in­tro­duced, though there’s dis­agree­ment on ex­actly how to re­place the sav­ings.

A bill by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., for in­stance, wants to off­set the cost by chan­ging the tax code to pre­vent il­leg­al im­mig­rants from claim­ing a child tax cred­it, while Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., would like to find the money by clos­ing some over­seas cor­por­ate tax loop­holes.

The grow­ing back­lash to the cut — some one in three law­makers, ac­cord­ing to The Hill, have sponsored or co­sponsored dif­fer­ent bills to re­peal the cuts — is a strong sig­nal that per­son­nel is­sues are likely to re­main vir­tu­ally un­touch­able in the near fu­ture, even if it means sac­ri­fi­cing oth­er im­port­ant pri­or­it­ies for the mil­it­ary, such as train­ing for com­bat op­er­a­tions and weapons pro­grams.

The $6 bil­lion cut, Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and Budget­ary As­sess­ments’ ana­lyst Todd Har­ris­on said, is a “drop in the buck­et” com­pared to what we’re spend­ing on mil­it­ary com­pens­a­tion over the next 10 years. “Un­for­tu­nately, I think that the way Con­gress has re­spon­ded to this small change in com­pens­a­tion — and now they’re look­ing at re­peal­ing it — is a set­back for mak­ing mean­ing­ful pro­gress on this is­sue for the fore­see­able fu­ture.”

From 2001 to 2012, the av­er­age cost of pay and be­ne­fits per act­ive-duty ser­vice mem­ber grew from $54,000 to $109,000, Har­ris­on says — an in­crease of 56 per­cent ad­jus­ted for in­fla­tion. Yet vet­er­ans’ ser­vice or­gan­iz­a­tions, says Har­ris­on, are prov­ing “very ef­fect­ive at scar­ing mem­bers of Con­gress about touch­ing this is­sue again. They’re re­in­for­cing the be­lief that this is a third-rail is­sue.”

Pentagon of­fi­cials have de­cried the rising costs of com­pens­a­tion, which threaten to usurp oth­er key pri­or­it­ies in the budget dur­ing aus­tere times, and have called for a slower growth rate for pay and high­er health care fees and co­pays for re­tir­ees. The tra­ject­ory of costs for mil­it­ary per­son­nel, says Eric Fan­ning, un­der­sec­ret­ary of the Air Force, are “un­sus­tain­able” and in­creas­ingly eat­ing in­to in­vest­ment and op­er­a­tion ac­counts.

But the polit­ics are com­plex. No one on Cap­it­ol Hill wants to be seen as break­ing faith with mil­it­ary troops. The pro­pos­al does have some thorny con­sequences: For in­stance, a ser­geant first class or mas­ter ser­geant re­tir­ing this year with 20 years of ser­vice, says re­tired Navy Vice Adm. Norbert Ry­an, chief of the Mil­it­ary Of­ficers As­so­ci­ation for Amer­ica, will lose $83,000 from what they would have earned by the time they reach age 62.

The cuts in the budget deal, Ry­an says, break faith with the vo­lun­teer troops who have already sac­ri­ficed so much — be­cause they take ef­fect ret­ro­act­ively. A com­mis­sion tasked with re­com­mend­ing ways to re­form the re­form the mil­it­ary’s com­pens­a­tion and re­tire­ment sys­tem, Ry­an stresses, was asked to in­vest­ig­ate re­form ef­forts that would grand­fath­er re­tir­ees and those cur­rently serving.

This mes­sage res­on­ates.

“It’s not jus­ti­fi­able to have the mil­it­ary re­tir­ees take a sig­ni­fic­ant re­duc­tion when oth­ers … are not,” says Sen. Jeff Ses­sions, R-Ala. “We all know we’ve got to tight­en our belts every year, but they shouldn’t be asked to be the ones to take the primary re­duc­tion.”

While Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., says he is in fa­vor of re­form­ing cost-of-liv­ing-ad­just­ments, he’s troubled that the deal simply gives a ret­ro­act­ive “pen­alty” to mil­it­ary re­tir­ees. “We didn’t change the struc­ture of our en­ti­tle­ment prob­lem, we just took $6 bil­lion out of the mil­it­ary re­tir­ee com­munity through the COLA pen­alty,” Gra­ham says. And Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Chair­man Carl Lev­in, D-Mich., ap­pears to agree: “En­ti­tle­ment re­form was ne­ces­sary, but it needs to be more com­pre­hens­ive, not just pick­ing out mil­it­ary.”

However, if the Pentagon has to live with­in the budget caps that Con­gress has set, and it can­not re­form areas such as com­pens­a­tion, it must make oth­er sac­ri­fices.

That means the mil­it­ary would likely be smal­ler and less pre­pared to fight, says Lawrence Korb, who was as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary of De­fense for man­power, re­serve af­fairs, in­stall­a­tions, and lo­gist­ics in the Re­agan ad­min­is­tra­tion. “Something’s got to give,” says Korb, a seni­or fel­low at the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress. “The costs of people are go­ing up — so you can’t have as many. Or you can’t keep as many units as you want to see for read­i­ness.” If the cost per per­son con­tin­ues to go up, even hack­ing in­to pro­cure­ment and re­search ac­counts won’t be enough, Har­ris­on adds. “You will end up with a force too small to fol­low through on our glob­al se­cur­ity com­mit­ments,” Har­ris­on says.

Vir­tu­ally every item the de­part­ment may con­sider cut­ting, Fan­ning notes, has a con­stitu­ency on the Hill — from the growth of mil­it­ary be­ne­fits to bases in mem­bers’ dis­tricts.

“If you can’t go after in­fra­struc­ture, your bases, and you can’t go after force struc­ture, the cost of your people, what that leaves is in­vest­ment and op­er­a­tions,” Fan­ning says. “So either you’re not mod­ern­iz­ing, buy­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of weapons, and/or not us­ing them, not train­ing.”

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