Vets push Congress for fix to pension cut

Veterans groups are growing increasingly frustrated that Congress has not made any headway toward reversing a $6 billion cut to military pensions.

The groups are determined to reverse the cut because they fear it is a first step toward larger cuts in military compensation and benefits.

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More than a dozen bills have been introduced in both chambers to repeal the cut, which reduces the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) by 1 percentage point below inflation for retirees younger than 62. The change would take effect in December 2015.

While more than a third of lawmakers have backed one or more of the proposals, there has been no bipartisan agreement as to how to offset the $6 billion price tag, which will be examined at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday.

Those opposed to the cut worry they are running out of time to reverse it. They argue once it takes effect in 2015, it will be difficult to turn around.

“We need to get it done now, in this Congress, because very soon, the majority of Congress’s attention is going to focus on reelection,” said Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Members of both parties insist they support reversing the cut, but they disagree over how to replace it. The gridlock has prompted some predictions that, despite the rhetoric, the cut ultimately will not get repealed.

Some budget hawks argue it is only a modest benefit reduction that is important to controlling ballooning military personnel costs.

“We are increasingly concerned that fast-growing personnel costs — including health and retirement benefits that begin at a very early age — will crowd out other defense priorities,” a group of former military generals and admirals with the Bipartisan Policy Center wrote in an op-ed in The Hill this month.

“We find the objections to the very modest proposals currently on the table, which represent a small start to the comprehensive reforms that are truly necessary, to be without merit,” they said.

But veterans groups say the cut is significant. The groups point to statistics that say a sergeant first class who retires at the age of 42 would lose more than $76,000 over the course of 20 years under the cost of living adjustment.

They acknowledge that the cut only affects roughly 17 percent of veterans, as only those with 20 years of service or more receive the retirement pay. But they say it’s not about the dollar amount — it’s the promise made to veterans.

“It’s that the promise that is broken, by a country that asks so much of so few, and can’t even follow through on that,” said Concerned Veterans for America CEO Pete Hegseth.

The groups have done everything they can to rally the public against the cut. Before Tuesday’s hearing, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the American Legion and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who faces a tough reelection this year, will call for repealing the benefit cut.

There is concern among veterans groups that because the adjustment doesn’t take effect until December 2015, Congress won’t feel a need to rush to fix the problem.

“The longer it drags on, the more worrisome it gets,” said Deirdre Parke Holleman, executive director of The Retired Enlisted Association, a group testifying at Tuesday’s hearing.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who called Tuesday’s hearing, has said cuts in the budget deal unfairly target one group, and he has generally endorsed reversing the retirement benefits reduction.

Retired Army Gen. Gordon Sullivan, president and CEO of the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA), will testify at the hearing that, at the very least, those currently retired or serving should be grandfathered into the current system, an AUSA spokesman said.

Advocates are hopeful that if a stand-alone bill to reverse the cut can’t get a vote on the floor, Levin could include a repeal in the annual Defense authorization bill.

“We don’t expect the senators to rush out of the hearing outraged and run to the floor and fix it, but we do expect this to be another link in the chain that’s going to fix this thing,” Tom Tarantino, IAVA chief policy officer, said of Tuesday’s hearing.

Tuesday’s hearing will also be the first chance for lawmakers to press the Pentagon on its views of the retirement benefit cut. Pentagon leaders have endorsed the overall budget deal, which included $31 billion in sequester relief for the military, and called for general compensation reform.

But top Pentagon leaders, as well as the White House, have mostly stayed silent on the pension cut.

A senior defense official said the Pentagon is grateful that the budget agreement gave the department some “much needed certainty” in the 2014 and 2015 budgets.

“Pay and benefits continues to eat up an ever increasing portion of the budget and DOD’s leadership looks forward to working with Congress in addressing this challenge,” the official said.