President Barack Obama’s signature on a hard-won House-Senate budget deal was barely dry before members of Congress from both parties began falling all over themselves to undo one of its provisions.
We refer to the 1 percentage-point reduction in military pension annual cost-of-living increases, which provides $6 billion in savings over 10 years, intended, in part, to restore badly needed funds for current national defense. Bowing to the powerful military retiree lobby, Senate Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and House Republicans Martha Roby of Alabama and Michael G. Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, have introduced bills that would replace the pension trim with, respectively, higher corporate tax collections or a reduction in child tax credits for low-income families.
Opponents of the provision decry its purported unfairness to those who have served at great risk in the past, and they assert that it will harm recruitment and retention in the future. The facts suggest otherwise.
For one thing, the cut is an exceedingly modest one on a pension plan that is already far more generous than private-sector equivalents. For someone who enlisted at age 18 and retired as an Army sergeant first class at 38, lifetime retirement pay would decline from $1.734 million to $1.626 million. And that $1.626 million would still be filled out with generous military health coverage and earnings for working in the civilian sector, which most military retirees do.
Rhetoric notwithstanding, many of the war-fighters who bear the biggest combat burdens get no pension at all; only one-eighth of enlisted personnel serve the 20 years necessary to qualify. As these numbers imply, most recruits didn’t join for the pension. “Surveys consistently report that military retirement has little value in recruitment or retention for at least the first 10 years of service,” the board found.
It’s sufficiently depressing that the debate sank to this level so quickly. Like civilian entitlements, military retirement — a $50 billion-plus item in the defense budget — is overdue for deeper reforms, such as adjustment to the all-or-nothing 20-year service requirement. And it does the men and women of our armed forces no dishonor to say so.
The Washington Post (Jan. 6)