Pryor has introduced a stand-alone measure to reverse politically unpopular cuts to some military pensions.
Arnold Punaro, a retired two-star Marine Corps major general and former top congressional national security aide, suggested that people both on and off Capitol Hill need to be reminded that the Defense Department’s primary goal is war fighting.
“It’s not a benefits outfit,” Punaro said.
House Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., one of a handful of lawmakers opposed to repealing the pension cut, has said he is concerned the military’s readiness will take a hit as the Defense Department continues to grapple with lower-than-anticipated annual budgets.
“It’s frustrating that we are still not accepting the reality of where we’re at,” Smith said at a breakfast with reporters last week. “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.”
If nothing else, the congressional reaction to the pension cut provides a primer for the Pentagon on how not to propose changes to the military’s pay and compensation system. Indeed, the provision has already been revised to exempt disabled veterans and survivors from the cut, which reduced the anticipated $6 billion in savings over the next decade by only about 10 percent.
“The whole COLA issue just goes to show this is not something that Congress should tackle on a piecemeal basis, making little changes here and there independently,” Harrison said. “Also, if they’re going to make changes, it needs to grandfather in past and current service members or otherwise it’s not going to survive.”
It seems counterintuitive that a more sweeping package of changes to the military’s pay system could get buy-in from lawmakers who have fought smaller and more incremental changes. But Harrison believes that a comprehensive proposal backed by hard data could pass congressional muster.
The Pentagon could, for instance, make cuts to benefits that service members do not value highly, while protecting basic pay and other benefits that play directly into their decisions to join — and ultimately remain in — the military, Harrison suggested. The department could then invest a portion of the cost savings in top-priority benefits, essentially enhancing the compensation system for many service members while also reducing its price tag.
Those are the types of issues that a congressionally mandated commission on military pay and benefits is tasked with reviewing. Congress recently extended the commission’s work by nine months, to February 2015, effectively pushing off any effect of its recommendations until at least the fiscal 2016 budget cycle.
Senior congressional aides said the commission got off to a late start, and some commission members grew concerned late last year because information the group needed was slow in coming from the Pentagon. But former Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim, who sits on the panel, said the response from the Defense Department has improved.
“I’m not too worried, quite frankly,” Zakheim said. “I think we’re going to be fine.”
The expectations are high, with defense observers hoping that the panel can provide a blueprint to address the problem that could ultimately be sold to reluctant lawmakers.
“If the commission will do its job, then I think we may have a good starting point for real substantive and lasting reform,” Harrison said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.