WASHINGTON — Military veterans associations charged into the fray this week after what they described as a surprise attack on retirement benefits for those in uniform.
Their lobbying efforts could affect support among senators for a budget agreement passed by the House last week.
It's a fight that highlights just how politically charged any changes to military compensation can be.
At issue is a part of the budget deal that would cut cost-of-living adjustments to military pensions being paid to working-age retirees by 1 percentage point annually.
It was sold to House members as a modest trim that would save billions of dollars and help ease the burden on the Pentagon of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
The pension change, which would be effective Dec. 1, 2015, would apply only to those retirees younger than 62. The idea is that those who retire in their 40s often have jobs in the private sector and can deal with military pensions that do not grow at the same rate as inflation.
The change would not apply to those who have left the military because of injury or disability.
But the Military Coalition, a consortium of associations representing more than 5.5 million current and former service members, has rallied in opposition to the budget proposal. The group says that while it appreciates the work to protect the military from sequestration, this is no way to pay for it.
According to the coalition, the reductions would have a “devastating financial impact” on those who retire at a relatively young age.
Someone who retires after 20 years of service at the age of 42, for example, would wind up with a pension that was 20 percent smaller by age 62 than it would be under current law.
“While portrayed as a minor change, a 20 percent reduction in retired pay and survivor benefit values is a massive cut in military career benefits and an egregious breach of faith,” the coalition wrote.
Congress and the administration have been wrestling with how to rein in the military's personnel costs across the board — health care, salaries, retirement benefits. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a former GOP senator from Nebraska, has warned that robust personnel costs combined with budget austerity threaten to produce a well-compensated force that does not have the equipment or training it needs to do its job.
Congress previously set in motion a comprehensive review of military compensation, and the coalition noted that Congress had tried to eliminate the possibility of fast-tracking any changes until they were fully studied. But instead, the coalition said, the pension changes included in the budget proposal were put together as part of a backroom deal among a few lawmakers not steeped in military matters.
The deal also goes against the idea that any benefit changes should apply only to future retirees, not current ones.
“This radical proposal basically kills the grandfather-concern addressed by both Congress and the administration and actually eliminates the appropriate review process failing to consider long-term readiness and retention outcomes in order to meet an arbitrary deadline so that Congress can go home for the holidays,” the coalition wrote.
Retired Army Col. Michael Barron, deputy director government relations for the Military Officers Association of America, said someone with the rank of sergeant first class retiring after 20 years of service would see a decrease in benefits of about $2,700 a year, or more than $80,000 over 20 years.
He said service members with 10 years of service will look at these cuts and be tempted to abandon their military careers.
“They're going to vote with their feet,” Barron said.
The deal had the support of two Republican House members from Nebraska — Reps. Lee Terry and Jeff Fortenberry. Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., voted against it.
Terry defended the move in a statement to The World-Herald.
“Very few are pleased with the reductions to pension COLAs, but these are the tough decisions we have to make to provide the relief necessary to lessen the burden on our nation's military so they have the tools they need to do their job,” Terry said, referring to the cost-of-living adjustments.
Paul Cohen, a retired Air Force brigadier general from Omaha who has served on the military officers association's national board of directors, said he was disappointed to see members such as Terry voting for the cut. He took issue with the rationale that it was necessary to give budgetary relief to other parts of the military.
“It's a little bit of 'Gee, we can't have both airplanes and pilots,' ” Cohen said. “But if you don't have pilots, it doesn't make any difference if you have airplanes or not.”
The coalition hopes to persuade senators to reject the budget deal when it comes up for consideration next week. There were signs Friday that the coalition was making some progress as a few senators came out against it, citing the pension cuts.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said she had not made up her mind on how she will vote on the deal.
But she said the pension cuts are a primary reason that she is reluctant to support it and said the government needs to make good on its promises to veterans.
“Is it really fair to have a 19-year military person getting ready to retire who served three or four deployments over in Afghanistan or Iraq and then to have this happen to them and their family?” Fischer asked. “It is not right.”
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., speaks often about the general need to rein in entitlement spending but said compensation for the military is different.
“They've done something very unique, you know, in many cases they're out there getting shot at,” Johanns said. “We try to treat our veterans very well and I think that's appropriate.”
Even if the deal is approved, that might not be the final word.
Sen. Carl Levin, R-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a statement Friday noting the concerns that had been raised about the pension cuts and stating the committee would review the change before it takes effect in December 2015. Levin also pointed to the ongoing comprehensive review of military retirement and compensation systems and said that could affect the change as well.
Cohen, the retired Omaha officer, said the coalition will be back at the table next year regardless.
He said the cuts are simply not fair to those who put on the uniform and had received certain promises.
“It wasn't the deal they signed up for,” Cohen said.