- The Washington Times - Monday, February 17, 2014

Fresh off winning a repeal of retirement-pay cuts for current and former military members, veterans groups say they now want to go back and cancel the cuts for future service members too, saying that the budget can be balanced without targeting veterans.

Under the bill passed last week and signed by President Obama on Saturday, the full rate of retirement pay increases was restored for current troops and retirees, but anyone who enlists in the future would see a drop.

Veterans groups, though, say that’s unfair.

“The world will remain a very dangerous and unpredictable place even after America ends its involvement in Afghanistan, and future military retirees will be required to serve just as long and perhaps sacrifice even more than their predecessors,” said William Thien, commander in chief of Veterans of Foreign Wars. “It is in that regard that the VFW will continue to fight for a full repeal of the COLA penalty.”

The bipartisan budget agreement in December included a 1 percentage point reduction in the cost-of-living adjustment for military retirees under age 62, for a savings of $6 billion over 10 years. Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, and other backers said it was a way to gain a handle on military benefits, which are becoming unsustainable in the long run.

But under pressure from veterans groups, Congress quickly backtracked, and over the weekend President Obama signed a plan to repeal the retirement cuts for former and current military members.

Those who join the military after Jan. 1, 2014, however, will still face the cut, and some veterans organizations — as well as some lawmakers — say that’s still not fair to those who will retire in 2034 after putting their lives on the line to defend the country for 20 or more years.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, is trying to wrangle support for his broad rewrite of U.S. veterans policy, and he said Congress should build on last week’s repeal.

“This bill is a step forward, but it doesn’t go as far as it should,” Mr. Sanders said in a statement after the Senate cleared the bill Wednesday. “The legislation restores the COLA for current retirees and members of the armed forces, but keeps the cut in place for those who have recently joined the military or will join in the years to come.”

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, also said she thinks full retirement benefits should be restored for service members joining the military now.

Mr. Ryan voted against the repeal of the COLA cut and said it “takes a step back” by letting officials in the Pentagon avoid hard decisions on other places to save.

“Our military leaders — and the math — have been clear: Compensation costs are hollowing out the Pentagon’s budget,” he said in a statement last week. “I’m open to replacing this reform with a better alternative. But I cannot support kicking the can down the road.”

At a hearing last month, acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox acknowledged that the military can’t maintain the rate of growth for benefits and that finding efficiencies alone won’t cover the military’s skyrocketing personnel costs.

“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 Jan. 28 at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “At these budget levels, everything is on the table.”

Still, she asked lawmakers to wait until a congressionally mandated review of the entire military-benefits system is completed in February 2015 before making any changes, noting that second- and third-order effects needs to be studied before the impact of any change can be fully understood.

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