Paul Ryan Is Still Right on Military COLAs

by Reihan Salam

In December, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and his counterpart in the Senate, Patty Murray, reached a budget deal that included a modest cost-of-living adjustment for military retirees under the age of 62. This adjustment quickly became a political football, with several Republican lawmakers declaring their opposition. This week an overwhelming majority of Republicans in the House and the Senate joined with Democrats voted to roll back the adjustment. Only nineteen House Republicans voted against the proposal to undo part of the budget deal, and only Jeff Flake and Dan Coats opposed it among Senate Republicans. 

Conservatives can and should be committed to preserving our ability to protect and defend our country, and to looking after the interests of retired servicemembers. But as we confront the fiscal imbalances that stem from the aging of the population and sluggish economic growth, everyone is going to have to make sacrifices. And the perception that Republicans only want to impose sacrifices on low-income constituencies, and not on middle- and high-income constituencies that are part of the center-right coalition, is toxic. The farm bill was the most egregious example of this dynamic at work. But the effort to shield military retirees of working age from a COLA adjustment fits the same pattern.

If we can’t ask military retirees to accept somewhat smaller cost-of-living adjustments, we make it much harder for conservatives at the state and local level to ask powerful public employees in their jurisdictions to do the same. We embolden those who insist that the public employee compensation status quo is sustainable, despite all evidence to the contrary. Of course military servicemembers make an invaluable contribution to our country. Those of us who call for reforming the terms of public employment also believe that teachers, police officers, and firefighters make important contributions to our well-being; it is critics on the left who insist that calls for benefit reform are tantamount to denigrating the contributions these women and men make. 

Fortunately, Paul Ryan understands the stakes, and he laid them out in a brief statement:

“This bill undermines one part of last year’s bipartisan budget agreement. I’m glad it keeps the compensation reforms for federal employees and billions of dollars in commonsense cuts. But on military compensation, it takes a step back. Our military leaders—and the math—have been clear: Compensation costs are hollowing out the Pentagon’s budget. They are taking resources away from training and modernization—and putting our troops at risk. This bill takes away over $6 billion from military readiness.

“The bipartisan budget agreement delayed the military-retirement reforms for two years so the Pentagon’s compensation commission would have time to think of alternative reforms if necessary. This bill undercuts that process. Rather than making the tough choices, it sidesteps them. I’m open to replacing this reform with a better alternative. But I cannot support kicking the can down the road.

The Republicans, and Democrats, who stood with Ryan on the military COLA bill deserve our thanks. Those who did not need to explain how they intend to address compensation costs, and if they actually believe that reforming government and shrinking public expenditures will entail no meaningful sacrifices going forward, or if they believe that those sacrifices must only be borne by certain classes of people.