Military Benefits Are the Real Third Rail of American Politics


USNews & World Report, Thomas Jefferson Street Blog

January 9, 2014 RSS Feed Print

A soldier stands guard near a C17 military aircraft sitting on the tarmac, on Dec. 8, 2013, in Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)Roughly half of the defense budget goes to salaries and benefits.

Here we go again. Congress is rejecting the advice of the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military establishment to pare back benefits.

For years, military leaders have made it clear that readiness is being eaten alive by wasteful giveaways. Now, we are in the unenviable situation of roughly half of the defense budget going to salaries and benefits.

Not only does Congress refuse to tackle this problem, it now wants to reverse the modest change the Murray-Ryan budget deal recently made in the retirement pay of future military retirees. As the Washington Post points out, “for someone who enlisted at 18 and retired at 38, lifetime retirement pay would decline from $1.734 million to $1.626 million.”

Members of Congress knows full well the situation we have ourselves in with the personnel costs of our military. They have seen the financial projections; they know the sweet deal that many get; and they understand the unfairness for many who fight on the front lines. The system is broken and members of Congress know it is broken.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

But very few stand up and accept the military’s own recommendations to help fix the problem. Why? Easy answer – military retirement pay, health care and benefits are the third rail of American politics. Touch it and you die. It used to be that Social Security was the third rail; now it is military benefits.

Let’s take a good hard look at the facts. First, there are roughly 9.6 million active duty, retired or military dependents. About 17 percent of them serve 20 years and retire. These cost us about $100 billion a year, and that figure is supposed to double by 2034.

The cost of military health care alone has risen from $17.4 billion in 2000 to more than $50 billion today. It is projected to be $64 billion in 2015. The TRICARE benefit, as its called, is extraordinary. For the past 15 years, it had been frozen at $460 a year for a family. Practically all military retirees have chosen to leave private insurance plans at their private firms in favor of TRICARE. Who wouldn’t, when you get a deal like that?

Former Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta pressed hard to control these costs simply by having the military pay modest payments and co-pays, but they were stifled by Congress. If families paid $1,100 a year, less than $100 a month, we would save $28 billion over the next 10 years.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Let’s look at military compensation. Since 2000, active duty compensation has gone up 28 percent – from $64,406 to $80,292 in 2012. In addition to pay and other allowances, there are serious benefits like housing, food, health care, PX privileges, tax breaks, education, etc. And those who stay in the military for 20 years get generous pensions, many for more than 40 years, twice as long as they served.

The sad part of all this is that if you don’t hit the 20 years, but serve overseas in combat in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and then leave, you aren’t entitled to those pensions. It is all or nothing, no vesting prior to the 20 years.

[Check out 2013: The Year in Cartoons.]

The other sad part is that Congress refuses to address this problem while American men and women are fighting overseas, as they fear of incurring the wrath of voters and veterans groups for “not standing by our military.” How ironic that it’s the military service chiefs, the leadership in the Pentagon, those who battle every day for a strong defense, who are crying out for reform.

It is precisely those who know and understand the problem who are getting stonewalled by Congress in their efforts to seriously reform a broken system. To quote from the conservative American Enterprise Institute: “These pay and benefits increases were created with the best of intentions in the midst of two brutal wars, but they reached the point when they are simply unsustainable.”

It is long past time for Congress to exhibit some courage, do the right thing and lead on this important issue.