Bipartisanship is a much-lauded ideal in Washington, but sometimes the worst legislation can pass by the biggest margins. Witness Congress’s decision a few days ago to repeal a small cut–just 1 percent a year–in the cost-of-living adjustment for working-age military retirees below the age of 62. The House voted to rescind the cut by 326-90, the Senate by 95-3, after vigorous lobbying from military retirees and their official associations.
The money involved was fairly trivial by Washington standards–a 1 percent cut in cost-of-living allowances would have produced a savings of $7 billion. But the fact that Congress is not willing to make even such a small, symbolic trim is bad news on two levels.
First, it suggests a lack of will to deal with the much more serious fiscal problems caused by runaway entitlement spending. Second, it suggests a lack of will to do what is necessary to maintain military readiness.
As things stand now, the military budget is declining and an ever-growing share of it is going to personnel costs–salaries and benefits for current and retired personnel, with health-care costs rising especially rapidly. A succession of military leaders, uniformed and civilian, have warned Congress that the Pentagon is in danger, essentially, of becoming a giant HMO that occasionally fires a missile. The Defense Department needs to maintain or even increase its current budget, but, failing that, it needs the leeway to redistribute money away from personnel and toward operations, procurement, training–in short, to all of the things needed to project military power.
The problem is Congress. Lawmakers are so supportive of our service personnel–for perfectly understandable reasons–that they are loving the armed forces to death. Benefits and salaries and pensions have risen so dramatically over the past decade that military personnel are now, by any measure, more generously compensated than their civilian counterparts.
Given the risks and hardships that uniformed personnel can endure (even if most of them never see combat), this may be right and fair–but only in an ideal world in which we can afford to pay retirees generously while not compromising the ability of those currently on active duty to carry out their assigned missions. Unfortunately we don’t live in such a world. We live in a world where difficult budget trade-offs have to be made, and regrettably Congress is dictating that those trade-offs be made based on politics, not on the merits.