Is COLA cap relief tied now to a rocket or a falling star?

By Tom Philpott

Senate Democrats have tied repeal of the COLA cap for working-age military retirees to a mammoth veterans’ health and benefits bill that they aren’t sure yet how to pay for or whether Republicans will support it.

In earlier war years, a maneuver like this might have enhanced prospects for repeal of the COLA cap, which Congress enacted only last month to save $6 billion over 10 years as part of a bipartisan budget deal.

This year, however, there’s a whiff of desperation about the surprise legislative pairing.  COLA cap repeal is a matter that normally falls under the jurisdiction of the armed services committee.  Indeed, the Senate Armed Services Committee plans to hold a hearing on it Tuesday.

But Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has made COLA cap repeal a feature of his bill, S. 1950, which he calls “one of the most comprehensive pieces of legislation…in decades.”  Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), he said, backs the move.

Is it a clever step toward restoring full inflation protection to current and future military retirees’ cost-of-living adjustments while bolstering prospects for a multi-billion dollar overhaul of veterans’ benefits?

Or will it amount to a showy gesture that, for a time, eases the ire of current and future retirees but, intentionally or not, serves as a poison pill for a vast expansion of veterans’ benefits that Republicans can’t support.

Even as the Congress continues to fumble over a debt crisis and years more of budget sequestration, Sanders’ Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014 offers over 130 initiatives to strengthen veteran programs of every stripe.  A summary of them runs 22 pages.  The bill alone is more than 400 pages.

Read descriptions of each provision

Last month, Sanders tried to have the Senate support some of these by unanimous consent in a smaller omnibus bill, S. 944.  But Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) placed a hold it, saying the bill wasn’t fully paid for with identified offsets of other veterans programs or federal entitlements.

Coburn also argued that, with Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) spending up 58 percent since 2009, adding a flood of new health and education benefits can’t be justified, particularly as VA shows signs it can’t administer effectively the benefits it already is obligated to provide.

Sanders’ new bill is more than double the size of the one Coburn blocked.  It has every initiative cleared by his committee over the past year and some the committee never considered.  Among them is the provision to fully repeal the COLA cap on current and future military retirees under 62.

Sanders said Reid wants S. 1950 brought to the floor as soon as possible to be debated and voted on.  Did Sanders add COLA cap relief to the bill to make it more difficult for Republicans to reject?  He would only say that he wants a more “comprehensive” bill because veterans and their families deserve almost anything Congress can provide.

But a vote against S 1950 now becomes a vote against COLA relief for current and military retirees, which Sanders touted in a press conference.

“We are going to fully repeal that provision…to make sure our veterans get the COLAs they were promised,” Sanders said. “But we do a lot more…[Veterans] who cannot access VA health care, we’re going to help you do that.  There are some with teeth rotting in their mouths because they can’t come into the system; we’re going to help you do that.  If you are taking care of a [disabled] Vietnam veteran right now and you’re not getting any help [or a modest stipend] we’re going to do that as well.”

Sure to draw fire is Sanders’ tentative plan to cover up to $30 billion of the bill’s cost over the next decade by tapping into the Defense Department’s Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which pays for the war in Afghanistan.  Sanders said there’s money in the OCO fund, set at $92 billion for 2014, to allow for expansion of veteran benefits.

“Especially when you understand that the OCO is designed for military purposes, I feel very comfortable about saying that some of this money – a modest amount…can be used by the people who defend us,” Sanders said.

He can expect a stiff resistance from military leaders who view OCO as holding critical defense dollars even as training, readiness and force strength continue to fall as overall defense spending gets squeezed.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, didn’t comment directly on Sanders’ massive bill.  A House committee staff member said Miller supports “the goals” of a number of Sanders’ initiatives, but “the sheer number” and “lack of bipartisan agreement” on many of them, and uncertain plans to pay for the package, “generate immediate concern for the bill’s prospects of…becoming law.”

The Senate rule Reid will use to “enable immediate floor consideration” of S 1950, the staffer continued, “calls into question” if this is a serious attempt to get legislation through Congress “or more of a messaging effort for Senator Reid and his fellow Democrats in an election year.”

OCO money will run out when operations end in Afghanistan so funding VA programs with it seems unwise, the staffer added. Reid and Sanders also appear ready to ignore the balance between defense and non-defense spending struck last month in the bipartisan budget deal, he said.

“These are serious questions that need to be addressed, or else we fear the bill does nothing more than give veterans false hope,” he said.

Miller has a stand-alone bill, H.R. 3790, to repeal the retiree COLA cap before it can take effect in January 2016.  But House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) now appears to support the view of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, who wants to keep the COLA cap at one percent below inflation for retirees given no service disability rating.

Boehner revealed his stand on the cap to an Associated Press reporter who cited a brief hallway conversation after the House voted to repeal the COLA cap for medically retired service members and survivors of retirees.  Boehner’s staff did not respond to queries seeking confirmation of the report.

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