Omnibus Addresses Disabled Vets’ Pensions; Others Left Hanging

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 29: U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) is trailed by reporters while arriving for a markup of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence October 29, 2013 in Washington, DC. The committee is also researching allegations of surveillance related to allied heads of state by the National Security Administration.
National Journal
Jan. 13, 2014, 4:22 p.m.

In a par­tial solu­tion to a nag­ging Pentagon prob­lem, dis­abled mil­it­ary vet­er­ans will have cuts to their pen­sions re­stored as part of the om­ni­bus spend­ing bill in­tro­duced Monday even­ing.

“We came up with the fix for the dis­ab­il­ity and the sur­viv­or part, which is a down pay­ment while they get ready to do com­pre­hens­ive re­form and get ready to do the pres­id­en­tial com­mis­sion,” Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Bar­bara Mikul­ski said ahead of the bill’s re­lease Monday. “So we made a down pay­ment for the needi­est, which were the dis­abled of work­ing age and the sur­viv­ors.”

Pen­sion changes that were made for oth­er vet­er­ans in last year’s budget agree­ment will be ad­dressed later this year by the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee and oth­er pan­els.

The re­duc­tions to dis­abled vet­er­ans’ pen­sions were part of a lar­ger cut in­cluded in the budget deal reached by Sen­ate Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Patty Mur­ray and House Budget Chair­man Paul Ry­an last month. The pro­vi­sion would de­crease the an­nu­al cost-of-liv­ing ad­just­ment for work­ing-age mil­it­ary re­tir­ees by a total of 1 per­cent over 10 years.

The in­clu­sion of dis­abled vet­er­ans has drawn strong cri­ti­cism from vet­er­ans’ groups, mem­bers of Con­gress in both parties, and even De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel. Ry­an and Mur­ray quickly backed away from the in­clu­sion of vet­er­ans who re­tired for med­ic­al reas­ons, re­fer­ring to it as a mis­take.

The move to re­verse cuts for dis­abled mil­it­ary re­tir­ees as part of the om­ni­bus spend­ing bill ad­dresses less than a tenth of the ori­gin­al cut of ap­prox­im­ately $6 bil­lion. Sen. Jeff Ses­sions, R-Ala., es­tim­ated that a pro­vi­sion to elim­in­ate the COLA cuts for dis­abled vets, coupled with a re­versal of the de­crease in an­nu­it­ies for mil­it­ary sur­viv­ors, would cost ap­prox­im­ately $593 mil­lion.

“So you still have got the vast ma­jor­ity of people who served their coun­try, have been re­ceiv­ing pay­ments or ex­pect pay­ments, re­ceiv­ing quite a bit of re­duc­tions,” Ses­sions said.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte also spoke out Monday against a hand­ful of de­fense-re­lated cuts in the budget agree­ment, in­clud­ing the de­crease in the cost-of-liv­ing ad­just­ment for vet­er­ans who re­tired due to in­jury.

“The more I press the Pentagon for an­swers, the more I learn how egre­gious the mil­it­ary be­ne­fit cuts are in the budget deal,” the New Hamp­shire Re­pub­lic­an said. “The cost-of-liv­ing ad­just­ment cuts un­fairly short­change mil­it­ary re­tir­ees, mil­it­ary sur­viv­ors, and the com­bat-in­jured to pay for more Wash­ing­ton spend­ing.”

Ayotte is one of a hand­ful of sen­at­ors seek­ing to link a re­peal of the mil­it­ary pen­sion cuts to a three-month ex­ten­sion of long-term un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance. The meas­ure would be paid for “with­in the budget win­dow,” Ayotte and oth­er sen­at­ors said in a joint re­lease.

Sen. Ro­ger Wick­er of Mis­sis­sippi, who led an ef­fort by Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors to at­tach an amend­ment re­vers­ing the cuts to the budget agree­ment but were ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful, said the de­cision to re­verse the pen­sion cuts for dis­abled vet­er­ans would not keep him from vot­ing for the ap­pro­pri­ations bill.

“It may take a little steam out of our ef­fort, but I just think it is so un­fair to change the rules for vet­er­ans who have already com­pleted their part of the bar­gain that I think even­tu­ally some­time in the next year or so, get the whole thing cor­rec­ted,” Wick­er said.

Con­gress has plenty of op­tions for rolling back the ma­jor­ity of the cuts. Mem­bers have filed about a dozen bills in less than a month to re­store the COLA fund­ing in its en­tirety.

Some, in­clud­ing a pro­pos­al by Sens. Mark Pry­or, D-Ark., and Kay Hagan, D-N.C., push for an out­right re­peal of the cuts. Oth­ers, in­clud­ing Rep. Dan Maf­fei, D-N.Y., and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., are seek­ing to off­set fund­ing to re­verse the cuts by clos­ing a tax loop­hole used by off­shore cor­por­a­tions.

Gen. Ray Odi­erno, the chief of staff for the Army, said last week that he has “not thought about it be­ing linked to any­thing else,” when asked at the Na­tion­al Press Club about Rep. Dar­rell Issa’s pro­pos­al to tie the funds to changes in the postal sys­tem.

“It’s time for us to look at pay and com­pens­a­tion.”¦ I be­lieve if we con­tin­ue on the path that we’re on, that we’ll have to re­duce our end strength even more,” he ad­ded.

His com­ments are sim­il­ar to those made by Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair­man Mar­tin De­mp­sey, who both de­clined last month to say where the De­fense De­part­ment will re­com­mend cuts from their budget for the 2015 fisc­al year, or if that could in­clude com­pens­a­tion.

The two De­fense of­fi­cials backed the budget agree­ment, pit­ting them against vet­er­ans’ groups, in­clud­ing the Mil­it­ary Co­ali­tion and the Mil­it­ary Of­ficers As­so­ci­ation of Amer­ica, which con­tin­ue to lobby law­makers to re­store the full $6 bil­lion in cuts.

And sen­at­ors don’t ex­pect to let the is­sue go. Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., said mem­bers will push to re­peal the full cuts “un­til we get it fixed,” adding that he hopes a solu­tion will be found by the Novem­ber elec­tions.

But the is­sue could stretch bey­ond that. The Mil­it­ary Com­pens­a­tion and Re­tire­ment Mod­ern­iz­a­tion Com­mis­sion, which was sup­posed to have re­com­men­ded changes to the mil­it­ary’s com­pens­a­tion and re­tire­ment sys­tem by May, had its dead­line ex­ten­ded un­til Feb­ru­ary 2015. And the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vice Com­mit­tee plans to re­view all changes to mil­it­ary pen­sions be­fore the cuts go in­to ef­fect in Decem­ber 2015.

Sarah Mimms con­trib­uted

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