31 December 2013, 18:48

US military veterans furious over cuts to their pension benefits

US military veterans furious over cuts to their pension benefits

While the cut is small — a one-percentage-point reduction in the annual cost-of-living increase — it has provoked outrage among veterans, some of whom argue that the country is reneging on a solemn pact. And even though lawmakers, especially in the GOP, fulminate about the need to cut the cost of federal health and retirement benefits, many have vowed to roll the cut back when Congress returns to work next week.

The authors of the budget deal, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.), have agreed to amend the provision to exempt disabled retirees and survivors of those killed in action, eliminating roughly 10 percent of the $6 billion in savings projected over the next decade.

But Ryan has resisted efforts to abandon the pension cut entirely, calling it a “modest” adjustment to a particularly generous program — and therefore a more sensible choice than harder decisions that may lie ahead.

“I stand behind the need for reform,” Ryan wrote in a Dec. 22 op-ed in USA Today. Noting that a special commission is due in May to make recommendations for an overhaul of the military compensation system, Ryan wrote, “That’s why this reform does not take effect until the end of 2015 — it gives Congress ample time to consider alternatives.”

Opponents say the policy retroactively penalizes a deserving group while doing nothing to contain the much larger cost of health and retirement benefits for the general public. Independent budget analysts note, how­ever, that lawmakers have shied away from reductions in federal retirement benefits for any recipients — including changes to Social Security and Medicare included in Obama’s most recent budget request — illustrating the enormous political difficulty of trimming the federal government’s largest category of expenditures.

“It’s easy to be bold and brave in general, but it’s very hard to be bold and brave in specific,” said Richard Kogan, a former Obama budget adviser who works at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“You can talk about ‘reforming entitlements.’ But you can’t talk about ‘cutting Social Security,’ because the public knows what that means,” Kogan said. “Now, we’ve got $6 billion taken from military pensions — an infinitesimally small provision — and it causes people heartburn because it’s specific.”

Military pensions have long been on the chopping block, in part because the Pentagon, like many government and private entities, is struggling to cover the cost of promises made to people who now typically spend long decades in retirement. In 2012, 2.3 million military retirees and survivors of those killed in action received about $52 billion in payments, a nearly 50 percent increase over 2002, according to Defense Department actuaries.

Overall, military compensation — including health benefits and salaries paid to active-duty personnel — eats up roughly half the defense budget, a proportion that is steadily rising. In a speech in November, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned that “without serious attempts to achieve significant savings” in military compensation, “we risk becoming an unbalanced force.”

Voice of Russia, Washington Post

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