Security Insiders: Congress Will Refuse Pentagon’s Calls for Personnel-Cost Reforms

Congress’s scramble to undo the $6 billion in military pension cuts is a sign.

Cadets of The United States Military Academy prepare to take their seats for a graduation and commissioning ceremony May 26, 2012 in West Point, New York.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
Feb. 5, 2014, 4:45 p.m.

A strong ma­jor­ity of Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity In­siders say the scramble in Con­gress to undo the $6 bil­lion in mil­it­ary pen­sion cuts is a sign law­makers will re­fuse to heed the Pentagon’s calls for broad­er re­forms to rising per­son­nel costs.

Con­gress’s Decem­ber budget deal in­cluded more than $6 bil­lion in cuts to mil­it­ary be­ne­fits, but they’ve been scram­bling to re­verse the cuts ever since. But there’s a broad­er war on the ho­ri­zon between the Pentagon and Con­gress over per­son­nel costs.

The Pentagon is call­ing for an over­haul in mil­it­ary pay and be­ne­fits in the com­ing years — after sig­ni­fic­ant in­creases dur­ing more than a dec­ade of war — since they threaten to usurp oth­er key pri­or­it­ies in the de­fense budget dur­ing aus­tere times, in­clud­ing weapons sys­tems and train­ing for com­bat troops.

Con­gress, however, is already sig­nal­ing it may re­fuse to listen, 80 per­cent of Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s pool of de­fense ex­perts said.

“The fact that Con­gress broached this top­ic at all dur­ing the Mur­ray-Ry­an budget ne­go­ti­ations is reas­on for op­tim­ism,” one In­sider said. “But the speed and vig­or with which in­terest groups op­posed the pack­age — and coaxed law­makers to push to stop cuts — is a sign that real re­form is still un­likely.”

“It is a third rail,” an­oth­er In­sider agreed.

Many In­siders voiced their frus­tra­tion with Con­gress’s re­luct­ance to make changes to the sys­tem. “Con­gress is snatch­ing de­feat from the jaws of vic­tory. After passing the budget bill with the COLA re­duc­tion, they are now cav­ing to pres­sure from a vet­er­ans groups who rep­res­ent a minor­ity of all troops,” one In­sider said. An­oth­er ad­ded: “When will Con­gress wake up to the real­ity of their re­fus­al to choose read­i­ness and mod­ern­iz­a­tion over com­pens­a­tion?”

Per­son­nel-cost re­form is a com­plic­ated is­sue, and a spe­cial com­mis­sion is due to re­com­mend changes by Feb­ru­ary 2015 — and some In­siders said Con­gress would be re­luct­ant to make changes un­til then.

“It de­pends on the in­di­vidu­al mem­ber of Con­gress, but most won’t take the time to study the DOD per­son­nel-cost is­sue with the thor­ough­ness needed to come up with re­forms that would en­sure some bal­ance between per­son­nel and op­er­a­tion­al costs in the DOD budget,” one In­sider said. “[Some] mem­bers see the $6 bil­lion cuts passed in Decem­ber as a breach of faith with our vet­er­ans. Mean­ing­ful mil­it­ary-pen­sion re­form would re­quire a change to the mil­it­ary re­tire­ment sys­tem, as well as the per­son­nel (pro­mo­tion and re­ten­tion) sys­tem. Con­gress prob­ably does not have the ap­pet­ite to prop­erly ad­dress the is­sue in an elec­tion year.”

In­ac­tion could have tough con­sequences for the mil­it­ary, In­siders said.

“Con­gress has ab­so­lutely zero in­terest in tak­ing on any mil­it­ary-en­ti­tle­ment re­forms or to close any ex­cess bases/fa­cil­it­ies. Com­bined with their re­fus­al to pare back old weapons sys­tems such as A-10, M-1 tank pro­duc­tion, or out­dated Glob­al Hawks as well as their in­sist­ence on mak­ing rad­ic­al se­quest­ra­tion re­duc­tions to the de­fense budget topline, the Con­gress is now the biggest obstacle to a lean­er, more mod­ern, more ef­fi­cient mil­it­ary,” one In­sider said.

“This will ul­ti­mately en­cour­age and em­bolden bad act­ors around the world as they see a hol­low, out­dated force emerge post-se­quest­ra­tion. Con­gress should either pay for the bloat and in­ef­fi­cien­cies they man­date, or al­low the mil­it­ary to ac­cept risk in their pro­fes­sion­al judg­ment.”

A 20 per­cent minor­ity said law­makers might make broad­er re­forms later. “Re­form­ing per­son­nel costs for ser­vice mem­bers and fu­ture re­tir­ees is far dif­fer­ent than break­ing ranks with cur­rent re­tir­ees,” one In­sider said. “The budget deal was a cheap shot at a group that lacks enough polit­ic­al clout to fight back.”

The back­lash now, an­oth­er In­sider said, “shows they’re go­ing to do a lot of pos­tur­ing on the is­sue, but the num­bers don’t give them much wiggle room.”

Per­son­nel-cost re­duc­tions present “too luc­rat­ive a tar­get for politi­cians to ig­nore,” an In­sider ex­plained. The com­mis­sion charged with over­haul­ing mil­it­ary com­pens­a­tion, the In­sider ad­ded, “will likely give them the polit­ic­al top cov­er re­quired to make broad­er changes.”

1. Law­makers want to undo the $6 bil­lion in cuts to mil­it­ary pen­sions sealed in the budget deal passed in Decem­ber. Is this a sign mem­bers of Con­gress will re­fuse to heed the Pentagon’s calls for broad­er re­forms to per­son­nel costs?

(61 votes)

  • Yes 80%
  • No 20%

Yes

“It’s an elec­tion year. Enough said.”

“Polit­ic­al ex­pedi­ency is al­ways in ten­sion with good gov­ern­ment to some de­gree. Vet­er­ans be­ne­fits are just one ex­ample, along with farm sub­sidies and oth­er en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams.”

“Con­gress is snatch­ing de­feat from the jaws of vic­tory. After passing the budget bill with the COLA re­duc­tion, they are now cav­ing to pres­sure from a vet­er­ans groups who rep­res­ent a minor­ity of all troops.

“When will Con­gress wake up to the real­ity of their re­fus­al to choose read­i­ness and mod­ern­iz­a­tion over com­pens­a­tion?”

“Con­gress has ab­so­lutely zero in­terest in tak­ing on any mil­it­ary en­ti­tle­ment re­forms or to close any ex­cess bases/fa­cil­it­ies. Com­bined with their re­fus­al to pare back old weapons sys­tems such as A-10, M-1 tank pro­duc­tion, or out­dated Glob­al Hawks as well as their in­sist­ence on mak­ing rad­ic­al se­quest­ra­tion re­duc­tions to the de­fense budget topline, the Con­gress is now the biggest obstacle to a lean­er, more mod­ern, more ef­fi­cient mil­it­ary. This will ul­ti­mately en­cour­age and em­bolden bad act­ors around the world as they see a hol­low, out­dated force emerge post-se­quest­ra­tion. Con­gress should either pay for the bloat and in­ef­fi­cien­cies they man­date, or al­low the mil­it­ary to ac­cept risk in their pro­fes­sion­al judg­ment.”

“It de­pends on the in­di­vidu­al mem­ber of Con­gress, but most won’t take the time to study the DOD per­son­nel-cost is­sue with the thor­ough­ness needed to come up with re­forms that would en­sure some bal­ance between per­son­nel and op­er­a­tion­al costs in the DOD budget. Oth­er mem­bers see the $6 bil­lion cuts passed in Decem­ber as a breach of faith with our vet­er­ans. Mean­ing­ful mil­it­ary pen­sion re­form would re­quire a change to the mil­it­ary re­tire­ment sys­tem, as well as the per­son­nel (pro­mo­tion and re­ten­tion) sys­tem. Con­gress prob­ably does not have the ap­pet­ite to prop­erly ad­dress the is­sue in an elec­tion year.”

“Con­gress will be re­luct­ant to make ma­jor changes in mil­it­ary-com­pens­a­tion policy un­til the re­port of a con­gres­sion­ally chartered in­de­pend­ent com­mis­sion makes its re­com­mend­a­tions, due in Feb­ru­ary 2015.”

“The fact that Con­gress broached this top­ic at all dur­ing the Mur­ray-Ry­an budget ne­go­ti­ations is reas­on for op­tim­ism. But the speed and vig­or with which in­terest groups op­posed pack­age — and coaxed law­makers to push to stop cuts — is a sign that real re­form is still un­likely.”

No

“They can’t avoid it. They need to have a bet­ter story and less in­sens­it­ive rol­lout. This has to be done. Means-test seni­or of­ficers on health care pay­ments.”

“Not ne­ces­sar­ily. The Mil­it­ary Com­pens­a­tion and Re­tire­ment Com­mis­sion re­ports a year from now. That, and the on­go­ing squeeze on mod­ern­iz­a­tion, might have an im­pact on con­gres­sion­al think­ing.”

“The pen­sion cut in­volves the spe­cif­ic is­sue of the gov­ern­ment reneging on its side of a deal after ser­vice mem­bers have ful­filled all of their side. Many oth­er changes to per­son­nel costs could be made without rais­ing that is­sue.”

“Not ne­ces­sar­ily. The back­ped­al­ing on the mod­est mil­it­ary-pen­sion re­forms demon­strates the dif­fi­culties of any sig­ni­fic­ant budget cuts or re­form — there is al­ways go­ing to be a vo­cal con­stitu­ency that makes the polit­ics tough.”

“Per­son­nel-cost re­duc­tions present too luc­rat­ive a tar­get for politi­cians to ig­nore. The cur­rent pres­id­en­tial com­mis­sion on mil­it­ary com­pens­a­tion will likely give them the polit­ic­al top cov­er re­quired to make broad­er changes. The na­tion­al de­fense lobby is now too weak to res­ist much and will save their powder for in­dus­tri­al base con­stitu­en­cies.”

“This was a last-minute ad­di­tion, and was not giv­en enough thought — poor staff work more than try­ing to send a mes­sage.”

“Not all law­makers want to undo it. We’re only really hear­ing from those with a sig­ni­fic­ant num­ber of mil­it­ary con­stitu­ents right now.”

“This is a sign that Con­gress wants think through the un­in­ten­ded con­sequences of knee-jerk le­gis­la­tion such as that found in the Bi­par­tis­an Budget Act re­gard­ing mil­it­ary re­tir­ees. Also, this means Con­gress wants to take a com­pre­hens­ive ap­proach rather than the piece­meal nature of the BBA.”

Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity In­siders Poll is a peri­od­ic sur­vey of more than 100 de­fense and for­eign policy ex­perts. They in­clude: Gor­don Adams, Charles Al­len, Thad Al­len, Gra­ham Al­lis­on, James Bam­ford, Dav­id Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Ber­gen, Samuel “Sandy” Ber­ger, Dav­id Ber­teau, Steph­en Biddle, Nancy Bird­sall, Mari­on Blakey, Kit Bond, Stu­art Bowen, Paula Broad­well, Mike Breen, Mark Brun­ner, Steven Bucci, Nich­olas Burns, Dan By­man, James Jay Cara­fano, Phil­lip Carter, Wendy Cham­ber­lin, Mi­chael Cher­toff, Frank Cil­luffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clem­ons, Joseph Collins, Wil­li­am Court­ney, Lorne Cran­er, Ro­ger Cres­sey, Gregory Dahl­berg, Robert Dan­in, Richard Dan­zig, Daniel Drezn­er, Mack­en­zie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, An­drew Ex­um, Wil­li­am Fal­lon, Eric Farns­worth, Jacques Gansler, Steph­en Gan­yard, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gun­zinger, Todd Har­ris­on, John Hamre, Jim Harp­er, Marty Haus­er, Mi­chael Hay­den, Mi­chael Her­son, Pete Hoek­stra, Bruce Hoff­man, Linda Hud­son, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Don­ald Ker­rick, Rachel Klein­feld, Lawrence Korb, Dav­id Kramer, An­drew Kre­pinev­ich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lind­say, Justin Lo­gan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ron­ald Marks, Bri­an Mc­Caf­frey, Steven Metz, Frank­lin Miller, Mi­chael Mo­rell, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kev­in Neal­er, Mi­chael Oates, Thomas Pick­er­ing, Paul Pil­lar, Larry Pri­or, Steph­en Rade­maker, Marc Rai­mondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Ro­ten­berg, Frank Rug­giero, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Steph­en Ses­t­an­ovich, Sarah Se­wall, Mat­thew Sher­man, Jen­nifer Sims, Su­z­anne Spauld­ing, Con­stan­ze Stelzen­müller, Ted Stroup, Guy Swan, Frances Town­send, Mick Train­or, Richard Wil­helm, Tamara Wittes, Dov Za­kheim, and Juan Za­r­ate.

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