Lawmakers say they have plenty of time to repeal a cut to military retiree pay that takes effect in 2015, but veterans’ groups are warning Congress it must get it done soon before members get distracted by their own re-election campaigns later this year.
Last month’s budget deal reduced the cost-of-living adjustment for military retirees under age 62, spawning a major backlash. The $1.1 trillion spending bill Congress passed last week restores full pay for disabled veterans, but leaves most veterans without relief from the benefits reduction.
“We’re certainly happy they have started to fix the problem, but it still does not change the fact that that promise that was made to career service members and veteran retirees has still been broken,” said Alex Nicholson, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
He said as long as the cuts exist, veterans will suffer anxiety over their finances.
“When someone says we can fix this later, they’re clearly not in tune with or aware of the impact this is having on veterans who have to worry about whether or not this is actually going to go through, and the stress and anxiety it’s causing,” he said.
The bipartisan budget agreement included a one percentage point cut in annual cost-of-living increases over military members and is projected to save $6 billion over the next decade. The cuts will take start to take effect in January 2015 and reach the full 1 percent by 2017, leading some lawmakers to believe it can be dealt with later.
“The 1 percent doesn’t start for two years. We’re going to take care of that,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said Thursday. “That is not an issue.”
But veterans groups express a greater sense of urgency.
Joe Davis, public affairs director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said members of Congress could become distracted later this year, so a fix should come as soon as possible.
“It is an urgent issue. This is an election year, so you have the entire House and a third of the Senate, their focus is elsewhere now. It has to get passed while this Congress is still this Congress because we know that Congress’ focus is going to go elsewhere,” he said.
A number of lawmakers objected to the cuts at the time, and since the budget passed they have introduced a flurry of bills to erase them.
There have now been more than 20 standalone bills or amendments introduced on the subject, Mr. Nicholson said.
On Thursday, a group of Republican senators introduced a plan to undo the cuts and extend long-term unemployment benefits by imposing across-the-board cuts. The American Legion endorsed that approach on Friday.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vermont independent, also introduced a bill on Thursday to address the cost-of-living cuts as well as several other issues that are important to veterans, such as offering alternative medicine options through the Veterans Affairs Department or offering in-state tuition for new veterans.
The fight over the cost of military pensions, which have soared with the costs of benefits for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, may not be over. The Pentagon’s Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission is due to issue a report early in 2014, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress last month that the status quo on military benefits is “not sustainable.”
While there’s no lack of plans floating around to repeal the cuts, many of the suggested ways to pay for them involve partisan issues, which could slow down the process, Mr. Nicholson said.
“There’s definitely a will within the leadership to get this done. It’s just a matter of finding the right vehicle and stripping out the partisanship,” he said.
He said IAVA is not supporting a particular offset or bill, saying, “We don’t care how they pay for it, we just want to see it undone.”