Adam Smith’s lonely military pension fight

By Jeremy Herb

The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee is in an increasingly  lonely position in Congress fighting against repealing the $6 billion cut to  military pensions.

Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said Thursday  he’s frustrated and concerned with the backlash in Congress against the cut to  the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for military retirees that was part of the  December budget deal.

“It’s frustrating that  we are still not accepting the reality of where we’re at,” Smith said at a  breakfast with defense reporters Thursday. “Everyone is still at the mindset we  were at three years ago, in terms of projections of what DOD is going to spend.  And that’s gone,” Smith said.Since Congress passed the budget deal to reduce the COLAs for working-age  military retirees, there’s been a major push on Capitol Hill to repeal the cuts,  with a flurry of bills introduced to do so.

Smith is one of the few lawmakers — along with House Budget Committee  Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — to publicly say that the pension cuts are a good  idea, siding with defense budget reformers who argue the cuts are needed in  order to curb ballooning personnel costs in the military.

The pension cuts in the budget deal reduce the annual COLA for working-age  military retirees — those who served at least 20 years — by 1 percentage point  below inflation.

Smith said that, while the cuts were substantial, they had to be balanced  against the other budget pressures facing the Pentagon. He said if curbs aren’t  placed on the military’s expensive programs, it would lead to a “hollow  force.”

Other lawmakers have argued the $6 billion saved through the pension cuts  could be found elsewhere. They say cutting benefits for military retirees is  breaking a promise made to members of the military when they enlisted, and any  personnel cuts should not affect current service members or retirees.

Smith took aim at his congressional colleagues Thursday, saying the pushback  against the military COLA cuts is the latest in a long line of congressional  decisions to stop the Pentagon from cutting programs, closing bases or raising  health fees.

“Unfortunately, the bulk of what is happening, as far as interest groups and  as far as members of Congress are concerned, is to simply try to protect  everything,” Smith said. “We have become increasingly interest-group driven and  parochial driven. Members, by and large, build relationships with constituents  based on what we’re going to protect.”

Smith also has a major parochial interest in his state — Boeing is based  there — but he said that isn’t something he considers when he’s voting on  national security issues.

“I’m not going to be the guy who is always going to try to protect my  district at the expense of what might be the better interest of the national  security of the country,” Smith said, citing one of his early votes in Congress  against building more B-2 bombers, siding against Boeing.

The Armed Services Committee ranking member acknowledged the repeal of the  COLA cuts “seems likely” at this point, and said he was concerned what that  meant for future compensation reforms.

“It certainly does not bode well,” he said.

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