For Lawmakers, Military Benefits Will Be a War on All Fronts

ARLINGTON, VA - FEBRUARY 24: U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey (R) depart after answering questions at a press conference at the Pentagon February 24, 2014 in Arlington, Virginia. Hagel and Dempsey spoke about the upcoming Defense Department budget requests during the press conference. A proposal released February 24, plans to shrink the U.S. Army to pre-World War II levels.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
Feb. 24, 2014, 4:16 p.m.

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.”

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