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No urgency in finding fix for COLA cuts, military leaders say

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Military leaders told Congress on Tuesday not to rush to reverse last year’s cuts to veterans’ retirement pay, saying they want to wait for a commission to finish a study of the entire system next year.

The opposition could complicate congressional efforts to repeal reductions in cost-of-living adjustments for some military retirees, approved as part of December’s budget deal.

The cuts don’t take effect until December 2015. The military leaders said the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission will report back by February that year about recommendations to reform a system whose costs are skyrocketing.

“Because of the complex nature of military retirement benefits, I would urge that the Congress not make any additional changes in this area until the commission provides its report in Feb. 2015,” acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox said Tuesday at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “There is ample time for a comprehensive review.”

Many lawmakers who feel burned by their votes in favor of the budget deal that included the cuts said the matter is more urgent.

“The right thing to do is fix it now, not to leave this hanging over our men and women’s heads in terms of the unfair cuts here,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican.

The bipartisan budget deal included a cost-of-living adjustment that was 1 percent lower than the inflation rate for military retirees younger than 62. The omnibus appropriations bill removed the cuts for wounded warriors, but reductions are scheduled for others.

Mrs. Ayotte and others have called for all of the pay to be restored.

To offset the higher military retirement funding, she proposed a plan Tuesday to crack down on illegal immigrants receiving the child tax credit by requiring parents to list their children’s Social Security numbers.

She previously introduced a plan that would have required parents’ Social Security numbers, but Democrats claimed that would harm children who are U.S. citizens.

Sen. Roger F. Wicker, Mississippi Republican, said the discussion about the cost-of-living cuts reminded him of sequestration: something everyone agreed was wrong and thought they could delay, but ended up taking effect because Congress couldn’t find a bipartisan solution.

“To say we know this should be fixed, we know it was wrong, we regret it, but let’s wait, to me it holds out the potential that it’ll be like sequestration and go into effect despite everyone’s protestations to do the contrary,” he said.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, also said Congress needs to address the issue as soon as possible to soothe the “unprecedented bipartisan outrage” among veterans.

“Pardon me if I don’t trust Congress when they say, ‘We’ll get to it.’ We need this to happen immediately,” Mr. Rieckhoff said. “They’ve got to show they can put our veterans first and put partisanship aside.”

While many lawmakers support repealing the cuts, Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican and one of the authors of the budget deal, wrote an editorial last month in USA Today defending them. He said military personnel costs are growing too rapidly and that the budget solution allows for benefits to grow each year but at a slower rate.

Ms. Fox acknowledged that the military can’t maintain the rate of growth for benefits and finding efficiencies alone can’t pay for the military’s ever-growing personnel costs with budgets so tight.

“Slowing the growth of compensation is another piece of this. We’re not cutting compensation; we just need to slow the growth. We can’t continue to grow at 40 percent above inflation,” she said. “At these budget levels, everything is on the table.”

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