By Tom Vanden Brook
WASHINGTON — Pensions for senior generals and admirals would be rolled back to ensure their retirement pay doesn’t exceed their active-duty salaries, according to a measure approved by a Senate panel.
In 2007, the Pentagon sought and received authority to modify the cap that determines pensions for three- and four-star generals and admirals in an effort to retain them during war. The change boosted the pensions of some senior officers by 63%.
The formula means that a four-star general or admiral retiring with 40 years of experience will receive a pension of $237,144, according to the Pentagon. Base pay for active-duty top officers is $181,501. Housing and other allowances can increase their compensation an additional third.
USA TODAY first reported on the change in 2012 when the Pentagon’s highest pension payment of $272,892 per year went to a retired four-star officer with 43 years’ experience; his pension under the old formula would have been capped at about $180,000.
“There has never been any indication that lifting this cap in 2007 helped with retention of senior officers — indeed, there was never any indication there was a problem,” Tara Andringa, a spokeswoman for Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said in a statement.
The proposed change is part of an effort to curb growth in personnel costs, she said. The committee looked at pay raises and commissary costs. This provision on pensions was added to ensure that the senior workforce would bear its share of any cutbacks, she said.
“Cutting the special pension enhancement is a no-brainer,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a non-partisan government watchdog. “This dubious provision was enacted at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a means of retaining senior flag officers; however, there is little evidence that it realized its intended effect. It should be revoked as soon as possible.”
The committee voted to reinstate the pre-2007 formula and to grandfather in officers considering retirement, according to a Senate staff member who was not authorized to speak on the record about the issue. The change would limit pensions of its most senior officers to their level of pay, $181,500.
The system would stay in effect until year’s end, allowing officers to keep what they have earned. Officers whose retired pay is below the cap Dec. 31 will remain below or at the cap.
The change would save the Pentagon about $23 million over nine years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The committee directed the Pentagon, at the request of Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., to study the effectiveness of the bolstered pensions in keeping senior officers in the military. This year, she questioned the need for the larger pension payments during a hearing about military compensation and the need to rein in costs.
The change was tucked into the massive National Defense Authorization Act, which the committee approved on a 25-1 vote late last month. The full senate will vote on the bill this year.