- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A plan to overhaul the military retirement system is gaining traction among some members of Congress, but most say it will take more time and hearings to digest a 300-page report released last week that called for major changes to retirement pay and health care benefits.

“We’re just at the beginning. That was just a first step, so I can’t draw any conclusions,” Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said a day after he held an initial hearing to go over with his panel’s members the report from a military benefits commission.

Congress has delayed a number of major personnel decisions over the past two years while awaiting the review, and with the report now in hand, they say they will digest it over the next few months.

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Mr. McCain said he wants the report’s recommendations to be debated as part of the annual defense policy bill discussions, which will begin in May.

Members of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission briefed Senate and House committees this week on their 15 recommendations to fix the military retirement and benefits system, including decreasing the annuity troops receive after serving 20 years, but setting up a 401(k)-like system that a service member would pay into and the government would match.

The commission also proposed ending Tricare in favor of private health insurance for active-duty family members, National Guard and reservists, and middle-aged retirees not yet eligible for Tricare for Life. In smaller recommended reforms, the commission suggested sunsetting duplicative GI bills, streamlining the process to call up reservists, and offering more financial literacy courses to help troops navigate the choices they will have for retirement and health care.

Rep. Mike Coffman, Colorado Republican, said that while he didn’t agree with every aspect of the commission’s plan, he thought “the direction was right” and that he supported opening retirement benefits to more than those who serve the full 20 years.

“I certainly have some differences with them, but what I appreciate about the report relative to retiree benefits is it recognizes the need for people that may not serve 20 years to be able to leave the military with something,” he said. “I think the system that we have right now is just a dinosaur of a retirement system. It has to be modernized.”

Under the current system, about 17 percent of those who serve get any retirement. If everyone were able to contribute to a 401(k)-like system, commissioners say, 75 percent of those who serve would get some retirement benefits.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said that if polls suggesting the majority of active-duty troops prefer the blended retirement reform in the report are accurate, lawmakers should implement it.

Rep. Jackie Speier, California Democrat, said the proposal will open retirement benefits to more people and reform a system in which top military brass collect huge pensions.

“The fact that we have three- and four-star generals who now receive a pension that’s 50 percent more than the president of the United States, the commander in chief, is indefensible,” she said. “If we’re really here on behalf of our country, you should be comfortable with a pension that equals the president’s.”

Many lawmakers said they need more time and more answers, including seeing what the troops themselves think, before they will make up their minds.

“It’s premature, there is a lot that needs to be gone through in order to consider each of their proposals in detail because of the very big changes they would bring about,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii Democrat and a combat veteran. “It’s going to require a lot more research and feedback from service members.”

Rep. Timothy J. Walz, Minnesota Democrat, said the commission members have presented their report as a “take it or leave it” package. He said that picking and choosing some options could upset the balance the commissioners tried to strike between enticing troops to stay in for the full 20 years, while offering benefits to those who don’t make it that long.

Mr. Walz, though, said Congress is likely to be skeptical of an all-or-nothing approach.

“I do think there’s, as I said, some very bold changes, there’s some they’re going to have to go out and convince people,” said Mr. Walz, who served for more than 20 years in the Army National Guard. “This whole idea that we’re offering up these 15 and you need to take them all, I think that’s a tough lift on any piece of legislation, especially this.”

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