Push To Restore Veterans’ Benefits May Lack Support


Military veterans are pressuring Congress to move quickly when it reconvenes this week to cancel cuts in pensions for working-age vets – a change set in motion as part of last month’s budget deal.

However, reversing the decision to reduce cost-of-living pension increases could be difficult and, at best, would take some time to negotiate, say some legislators and lobbyists.

Federal lawmakers from Hampton Roads, which has one of the nation’s largest concentrations of retirees and active-duty service members, strongly support undoing the cuts. Most have already proposed or are co-sponsoring legislation to do so.

But members of Congress from regions with considerably smaller military communities may not be as driven to make a quick fix.

Mike Hayden, government relations director for the Military Officers Association of America, said many members of Congress represent constituents who’ve seen the demise of private pensions and the up-and-down cycle of 401(k) investments and don’t see why the military should be treated differently.

“Fewer and fewer members of Congress have actually served in the military,” Hayden said. The officers association, other veterans groups and their supporters contend the pensions are part of the promise made to men and women when they joined the service. They argue that any changes should affect only newcomers, not those already in the ranks.

The issue arose in mid-December when congressional budget negotiators agreed to cut 1 percent of the annual cost-of-living increase added to pensions of military retirees younger than 62. The rationale was that younger veterans typically move on to civilian jobs and aren’t dependent solely on their pensions.

The reduction was included in a sweeping budget deal that sought to ease the pain of automatic defense cuts, known as sequestration.

The change, which would take effect in December 2015, would save the government about $6.2 billion over 10 years.

Under the plan, when eligible vets turn 62, they would again qualify for the 1 percent increase. They would also get a one-time bump so that, during later years, their payments would be the same as if there had been no cost-of-living cut.

Responding to loud protests from retirees that began as soon as the budget deal was announced in mid-December, several lawmakers have proposed legislation to undo all or part of the pension reduction.

A bill drafted by Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Virginia Democrats, would replace the $6 billion in savings by closing tax loopholes that allow U.S. firms to avoid paying taxes on overseas operations. Others have proposed collecting additional money by cracking down on those who illegally claim child tax credits. A California legislator last week proposed limiting Saturday mail delivery to raise the money needed to restore the pensions.

Most of Congress – including Hampton Roads’ four congressmen and Warner and Kaine – voted for the budget deal, saying that they objected to some elements, including pension cuts, but that changes could be made later. The budget deal avoided the prospect of another government shutdown.

Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan, who lead their chambers’ respective budget committees and drafted the compromise bill, have promised to make one change: reinstating the cost-of-living hike for disabled veterans and families of service members killed in action.

However, Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said in a recent USA Today essay that the country must deal with rapidly rising military pay and benefits costs or be forced to limit funding for other parts of national defense.

“For me, there’s simply no choice between responsible reforms of military compensation and making what our military leadership has called ‘disproportionate cuts to military readiness and modernization,’“ Ryan wrote.

U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell, whose district contains several of the region’s military installations, including Norfolk Naval Station, Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek and Oceana Naval Air Station, as well as a large community of retirees, said it will likely take “many months” for any pension changes to pass Congress.

“My best assessment as of right now is that the case can be made with effort and with work and with time,” the Virginia Beach Republican said.

Hayden, whose organization asked its members Friday to send another flurry of emails and messages to legislators, said even though the cuts don’t take effect for two years, they want the reversal as soon as possible.

“The longer this gets kicked down the road, the more it becomes status quo,” he said, adding that his group believes the pension cuts are a signal of changes to come.

“From our perspective, this is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

The rising cost of compensation, pensions, health care and other benefits for members of the military and their families has long been a concern of Pentagon leaders.

Last year, Congress set up a commission to review and propose changes. The Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission was due to complete its work by May but now might not finalize its recommendations until February 2015, according to The Military Times.

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