Was 2013 the height of military benefits?

Contributing WriterJanuary 4, 2014 

As it came to a close, 2013 seemed to leave a kind of high-water mark on the wall of more than a decade of steady, impressive gains to military and veterans’ pays and benefits. Will those gains now begin to recede?

The military this month is getting its smallest annual pay raise in 50 years — 1 percent versus 1.8 percent needed to match private sector wages. No big deal, pay officials contend. Military pay still exceeds earnings for 90 percent of civilians of like age and education level, thanks to the string of raises that, starting in 2001, exceeded private sector wage growth. Also, recruiting is strong, and average housing allowances rose 5 percent Jan. 1.

Military careerists and younger retirees got a harder hit in December when the first “bipartisan” budget in years included a cap on annual cost-of-living adjustments for retirees below age 62, starting in January 2016.

Projected savings — $6.3 billion over just the first decade — helped Congress ease automatic defense spending cuts set for 2014 and 2015. But advocates for military folks worry the COLA cap signals that lawmakers, who continue to oppose tax increases or cuts in more popular entitlement programs, no longer view military compensation promises as sacrosanct.

“The COLA (cap) is huge,” said retired Army Col. Robert F. Norton of Military Officers Association of America. “Because contrary to public assertions from the president, the chairman of the joint chiefs, (Defense Secretary Chuck) Hagel and leaders on Capitol Hill, this retirement cut is a hit on currently serving career members.”

That includes, he said, a Marine gunnery sergeant or Army platoon sergeant “on a third or fourth tour in Afghanistan” who expects to retire soon.

Initially praised for shaping a modest budget deal on deadline, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the leaders of their budget committees, saw their package swiftly enacted before most lawmakers realized that the military COLA cap would spark a firestorm of protests.

Worried lawmakers immediately held news conferences, sponsored rollback bills or issued news releases promising to replace the COLA cap with an alternative. Even Ryan and Murray agreed the cap at least should be modified before it takes effect in 2016 to spare 100,000 veterans who have been medically retired by their branch of service.

Ryan, however, defends the COLA cap in general, saying the idea came from the Department of Defense and only modestly trims a generous retirement plan that provides, on average, 40 years worth of inflation-protected annuities in return for 20 years of service.

VETERANS

Veterans affairs committees also came up short in 2013. Most years, around Veterans Day, Congress has passed a new package of initiatives to strengthen veteran benefits and services. In 2013, the only noteworthy law enacted was no bigger than a rounding error.

For nearly 20 years, Congress has saved taxpayers a little money on inflation adjustments to VA disability compensation and survivors’ indemnity and dependency compensation by requiring that, after the yearly COLA is applied, new VA pay rates get rounded down to the nearest dollar.

The rounding didn’t happen in 2013, thanks to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. When a veterans’ COLA of 1.5 percent took effect Dec. 1, compensation charts showed cents as well as dollars, a gesture that added an average 49 cents to monthly payments.

Sanders had hoped to achieve much more. On Dec. 18, he tried to get the full Senate to approve by unanimous consent a mammoth package of new benefits and services for veterans and surviving spouses. The Veterans Health and Benefits Improvement Act of 2013 (S 944) cleared his committee in July. This day, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., put a hold on the bill.

Coburn explained his reasons two days later in letter to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate minority leader. One more expansion of veterans’ health and education services can’t be justified, Coburn said, given that the Department of Veterans Affairs can’t administer all benefits previously enacted or keep all past promises made to veterans and their families.

He also argued that S 944 isn’t fully paid for with budget offsets elsewhere, as proponents claim. And some offsets identified won’t save money for years while near-term VA spending, already up 58 percent since 2009, would climb by at least another $77 million and “likely much more,” he said.

“At a time of runaway deficits and a crippling national debt, it is inappropriate to add even one dime to our national debt,” Coburn added.

One key initiative of S 944 would force states to grant in-state tuition at state-run colleges and universities to recently separated veterans using GI Bill education benefits, a move Coburn sees as violating state rights.

The House, as well as Coburn, must agree to any new gains. Coburn seems set against, even pointing to “needless” recent deaths of three veterans at the VA hospital in Augusta, Ga., for lack of timely, promised care.

“It is shameful for Congress to claim credit for providing new benefits while old promises are forgotten” and “heroes” die as a result, Coburn wrote.

Send comments to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120; email milupdate@aol.com; or on Twitter: Tom Philpott @Military_Update

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