Senate Skittish Over Cutting Troops’ Benefits

The Pentagon says Congress is forcing it to slice $2 billion, but lawmakers are balking at the Defense Department.

A U.S. soldier shops at the Bagram Base in Afghanistan.
National Journal
Jordain Carney
March 27, 2014, 1 a.m.

The Pentagon is pro­pos­ing to cut roughly $2 bil­lion from troops’ pay and be­ne­fits, but sen­at­ors Wed­nes­day demon­strated that the plan is something of a lead bal­loon on Cap­it­ol Hill.

Mem­bers of the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee pushed back against Pentagon of­fi­cials Wed­nes­day, sug­gest­ing a series of al­tern­at­ives that could spare the be­ne­fits but keep the fed­er­al budget un­der Con­gress’s self-im­posed caps.

“I un­der­stand where you’re com­ing from, you’ve got a budget cap that we cre­ated,” said South Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an Lind­sey Gra­ham, re­fer­ring to the de­part­ment’s $496 bil­lion base budget cap. “So if we could find a $2 bil­lion safety valve here I think it would pre­vent them from just hav­ing to ig­nore the per­son­al ac­count and raid oth­er ac­counts.”

Gra­ham stressed that try­ing to find the funds to swap out the cuts should be an ex­er­cise for the Per­son­nel Sub­com­mit­tee, not De­fense De­part­ment of­fi­cials.

Robert Hale, the De­fense De­part­ment’s comp­troller, said the cuts are ne­ces­sary to com­ply with Con­gress’s budget cap while also up­grad­ing its equip­ment and keep­ing troops ready for com­bat. They would come from a mix of changes to health care costs, hous­ing al­low­ances, de­creased fund­ing for base gro­cery stores, and a pay freeze for top brass.

But it wasn’t just Gra­ham who wanted the Pentagon to re­think its plans.

New York Demo­crat Kirsten Gil­librand and New Hamp­shire Re­pub­lic­an Kelly Ayotte pressed of­fi­cials on why the De­fense De­part­ment couldn’t wait un­til after a com­mis­sion study­ing mil­it­ary com­pens­a­tion and re­tire­ment re­leased its re­port in Feb­ru­ary 2015.

Mil­it­ary pay is a sore spot for Con­gress this year, after law­makers cut nearly $6 bil­lion in mil­it­ary re­tir­ee be­ne­fits in the Decem­ber budget, but then back­pedaled furi­ously after mass out­cry from vet­er­ans’ groups and the pub­lic.

But Hale pressed back, say­ing the Pentagon couldn’t af­ford to wait. “If we wait two years un­til we have the com­mis­sion res­ults “¦ then we’re go­ing to have take all of this money out of read­i­ness and mod­ern­iz­a­tion, and we think that will des­troy a bal­ance and dam­age na­tion­al se­cur­ity,” he said.

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