Lawmakers should listen to soldiers

Tom Philpott: military columnist

The Bush administration continues to sound an alarm over rising military personnel costs from steady gains in pay and benefits voted by the Congress, including more new initiatives in the 2007 defense budget bill.

But Congress shows no sign of heeding the alarm, not while U.S. forces “stay the course” in Iraq and Afghanistan, separated from family and suffering casualties in an uncertain quest to help democracy take root there.

The latest administration criticisms of personnel costs appear in “heartburn” letters to the armed services committees from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. The administration, says OMB, “strongly opposes” several new initiatives for personnel in the House and Senate versions of the defense authorization bill nearing enactment.

The House wants to add an “unnecessary” half percentage point to the 2.2 percent military pay raise planned for next January, and to make a premium-paid TRICARE health plan available to all drilling reservists.
Also creating concern is a Senate initiative that would repeal a reduction in survivor benefits that occurs when surviving spouses draw tax-free Dependency and Indemnity Compensation.

OMB criticizes both chambers for rejecting the Defense Department’s plan to raise TRICARE fees for retired military beneficiaries under 65.

As floor debate on the Senate bill continued, more initiatives that raised the ire of the Bush team were being shaped into bill amendments. They included a faster end to the ban on “concurrent receipt” of military both retired pay and disability compensation for “unemployable” retirees, a lowering of age-60 retirement for deployed reserve forces, and a change to Reserve GI Bill eligibility so benefits can be used after they leave service.

What drives a Republican-led Congress to ignore a Republican president’s warnings about rising compensation costs? We asked two pay experts who hold opposing views the merits of the current trend.

Cindy Williams, a researcher with the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been a prominent critic of rising military personnel costs. Steve Strobridge is a fierce advocate for improved pay and benefits as government relations director for the Military Officers Association of America and co-chairman of The Military Coalition, an umbrella group of three dozen service associations and veterans’ groups.

Military compensation costs have been climbing since September 1998 when the Joint Chiefs testified to shortfalls in recruiting and retention, said Williams. They blamed inadequate pay, a discounted retirement plan for persons who had entered service since 1986, and broken promises of lifetime healthcare for older generations of retirees.

Congress responded by repealing the so-called Redux retirement plan, committing to six years of annual pay raises above private sector wages, special increases in housing allowances to match off-base rental costs, and establishing TRICARE for Life and the TRICARE Senior Pharmacy Programs.

Since 9/11, lawmakers also have increased military death gratuities and life insurance, improved combat-zone tax breaks, raised danger and separation pays, ended a ban on concurrent receipt of retired pay and disability compensation for seriously-disabled retirees, voted to phase out a drop in survivor benefits at age 62, and expanded health care and other benefits for mobilized Reserve and National Guard members.

Williams said she and other analysts expected the trend to stop when the Joint Chiefs finally decided that rising personnel costs were soaking up too many dollars needed for weapons and other readiness needs.

They made those arguments this year but Congress still embraced new pay gains and rejected the chiefs’ plea to raise TRICARE fees for under-65 retirees. Why?

Williams said pay and benefit initiatives have become “a political football” on Capitol Hill. “Neither party wants to be charged as the party that fails to provide what our men and women in uniform need,” she said.

Lawmakers remain receptive to new pay initiatives, Strobridge said, “because they share our belief that the administration has been almost unbelievably insensitive to the sacrifices of today’s troops and (of those in) previous periods of conflict. We hear time and time again from administration leaders that money spent on retirees, survivors and anybody not actively serving doesn’t contribute to readiness. We don’t believe that. … Today’s active duty forces look at the way the wounded are treated, the way disabled retirees are treated, the way survivors are treated and say … that may be me.”

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