By Leo Shane III
Meaningful military compensation reform is likely years away, and even then will happen only if the White House insists on a major overhaul, defense budget experts said Wednesday.
In a conference call with reporters, a panel of progressive defense critics with the National Security Network blasted the House Armed Services Committee’s recently passed defense authorization bill for fiscal 2015, calling it a shortsighted plan that ducks budget realities.
Committee members “chose pork and hardware over readiness,” said Gordon Adams, a former Clinton administration defense budget official. “They seem to imagine a parallel future where defense budgets are going to grow.”
The critics see areas where equipment, civilian staffing and end strength can be cut, but they agreed that pay and benefits changes — while overdue — are likely politically impossible for now.
Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former Pentagon personnel chief under President Reagan, reiterated his belief that military compensation needs immediate reductions to prevent personnel costs from overwhelming the military.
But he also said White House and Pentagon leaders have done a poor job selling that need.
“If they want a change, the president has to do it,” Korb said. “[Defense Secretary Chuck] Hagel has to get people’s attention. Someone has to take the lead.”
Korb pointed to the fight earlier this year over reductions in working-age military retirees’ cost-of-living adjustments, which would have saved the Defense Department about $6 billion over 10 years. After veterans groups protested the move, Pentagon leaders backed off supporting the plan, and Congress quickly repealed the measure.
Lawmakers are awaiting recommendations due next February from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission before making any major decisions on pay and benefits. But Korb warned that those ideas likely will be ignored too, unless administration officials push to put them into law.
Adams agreed. “This probably the toughest hill to climb” on the budget, he said. “Congress on its own is not going to initiate any pay and benefits changes.”
Last week, the House Armed Services Committee rejected Pentagon plans to trim housing allowance rates, reduce commissary benefits and restructure Tricare to save about $2 billion annually in defense spending.
Committee members also signaled support for a 1.8 percent pay raise for troops in 2015 — 0.8 percentage points above what military leaders asked for — but did not include language in their bill to mandate that higher raise.
Senate lawmakers are expected to unveil their pay and benefits proposals next week, but have signaled similar opposition to Pentagon compensation changes. Military leaders have argued that without those cuts soon, readiness and modernization accounts will be compromised.