Initiatives by Congress may be too costly

By Tom Philpott:Military Update

A senior Defense official has warned Congress against creating an entitlement-rich military the nation cannot afford.
Charles S. Abell, principal deputy under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, was asked last week while testifying before the Total Force Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee to list a few issues that keep him awake at night.
Recruiting and retention are constant concerns, said Abell. Another big worry, he said, “is the sweep of (military) compensation and benefits‚” after recent gains and given new initiatives that Congress appears to favor.
“You and your colleagues are very generous to our folks and, in most cases, our folks deserve everything that you give them,” Abell told Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark. “However, it is possible to create a force that is too expensive for the nation, especially when it comes to programs that are essentially deferred compensation, or where the benefits accrued only to those who no longer serve. I worry about the cost of that and what that does to labor costs within the department of defense.”
Representatives of military associations disagreed, urging at the same hearing that the House improve survivor benefits, expand reserve health care and adopt a lengthy list of other initiatives.
Abell, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served two combat tours in Vietnam, noted that basic pay for most service members is up 29 percent since January 2000.
Mid-grade enlisted, who received higher “targeted” raises, have enjoyed a 35 percent hike over four years. Housing allowances, by year’s end, will have climbed 18 percent faster than rental costs since 2000.
The Bush administration supported these raises, Abell says. What it opposes are initiatives to raise entitlement spending, especially for retirees, their survivors, drilling reservists and their families.
Abell’s written testimony included a chart showing growth in entitlement spending, which by fiscal 2005 will reach more than $12 billion a year for just three recently enacted programs: TRICARE for Life; concurrent receipt (limited to retirees with disability ratings at least 50 percent) and TRICARE for drilling reservists who are unemployed or lack health insurance.
The Senate’s budget resolution for 2005 earmarks funding to phase out over 10 years the sharp drop in military survivor benefits that occurs at age 62. Abell said that would cost $1 billion a year within five years. It also would open military health care to all drilling reservist and their families willing to pay modest premiums. That would cost at least $1 billion too, Abell said.
Phase-in of concurrent receipt for all retirees, as some legislators propose, would boost that program $2-billion annual cost by 40 percent.
Lowering from 60 to 55 the age at which annuities begin for Reserve retirees could cost $14 billion over the next 10 years.
Testifying for The Military Coalition, a group of more than 30 service associations, Joe Barnes, Erin Harting and Lee Lange urged approval of all these initiatives to correct inequities for retirees and survivors and to properly compensate the over-worked current force.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: