By Tom Vanden Brook
WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff petitioned Congress last month to retain privileges for top officers that lawmakers are seeking to trim, including fattened pensions and the number of enlisted aides serving generals and admirals, according to a letter obtained by USA TODAY.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey wrote the letter on Nov. 12 to encourage leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees to undertake comprehensive reform to compensation for troops, rather than a piecemeal approach, according to his spokesman, Air Force Col. Ed Thomas.
“The chairman supports congressional reviews of these programs,” Thomas said. “His recommendation was simply to ensure changes are part of a deliberate review.”
There’s no need to wait to rein in “insane” pensions and other perks, such as enlisted aides to cook for the top brass, said Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Action should be taken in the National Defense Authorization Act, which both chambers approved last week.
“We need to clean it up,” Speier said. “This is what happens when over time requests are made by the brass at the Pentagon to the committees of the House and Senate charged with the NDAA. In an effort to make friends, the Congress has acquiesced.”
Pensions for top officers were beefed up beginning in 2007 by as much as 63% — at the Pentagon’s request — to retain senior officers during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The change allowed long-serving officers to have pensions that exceeded active-duty pay, which is capped at $181,500. Housing allowances and other considerations can boost their compensation by a third. In 2012, the top pension payment was $272,892 paid to a retired four-star officer.
The Senate Armed Services Committee found the military had no problem retaining senior officers.
The change approved by the committees would cap pensions at $181,500 per year, but officers currently serving would be grandfathered in under the current rule.
Dempsey, in his letter, told the chairmen of the House and Senate committees that the service chiefs “obviously do not object to congressional review of (general and admirals) retirement. However, we believe any proposal should be part of the systemwide review under the congressionally established Military Retirement Modernization Commission.” The commission’s recommendations are due Feb. 1, 2015.
Lawmakers also want to reduce the number of enlisted troops who cook, clean and receive guests for the brass. The current limit of 300 enlisted aides would drop by 40, another change approved by Congress in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.
The Pentagon has had difficulty accounting for the enlisted aides it has assigned to generals and admirals, according to a study this fall by the Government Accountability Office. In recent years, the Army and Air Force had from 70 to 97 enlisted aides per year, or one for every four Army generals and one for every three-and-a-half Air Force generals. Their compensation averages just over $100,000 per year. The Navy and Marine Corps did not have enough data on their enlisted aides to determine their cost.
In 2012, the Pentagon’s inspector general found that the superintendent of U.S. Army Military Academy at West Point had required staffers, including enlisted aides, to work as servants at private events, provide driving lessons and care for a cat. Then Lt. Gen. David Huntoon agreed with investigator’s findings, paid the soldiers more than $1,800 and was reprimanded by the Army. He has retired.
A good-government group views Dempsey’s letter as a tactic to preserve perks for a select few — three- and four-star generals and admirals.
“Making modest reductions to the number of enlisted aides is a common sense reform that will help the Pentagon cut costs,” said Ethan Rosenkranz, national security policy analyst for the Project on Government Oversight, a non-partisan government watchdog. “It doesn’t surprise us that America’s most senior general is opposed to a smaller staff and more modest retirement package.”