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COLA Wars
Why trimming military pensions irks this deficit-hawk veteran.


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Pete Hegseth

With a $1.1 trillion budget wending its way through Congress and likely headed for President Obama’s desk, officials in Washington are no doubt patting themselves on the back for a job well done.

Here’s who won’t be cheering the news: American veterans and military retirees and their families. Tucked away in this massive spending package is a provision that chops away at the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) raises for military retirees and family survivors, in order to save an estimated $6 billion over the next ten years.

You could argue that I, as a deficit hawk, should cheer this fiscal reform: “C’mon, Pete, you’re always going on about cutting spending, and here’s a spending cut! Why aren’t you happy?” And it’s true, spending reform is hard to come by in today’s profligate Washington, and the case could be made that we should celebrate any minor victory in that fight.

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But what’s galling about this specific spending cut is that it achieves so little, while breaking faith with veterans and sending a discouraging message to rank-and-file members of the military. Washington politicians can’t be bothered to make even the most minor adjustments to Social Security, Medicaid, or Medicare — but cutting back those who have served our nation honorably in uniform, or the families who have lost a loved one in combat? No problem. It’s an assault on the dignity and pride of our military personnel, for so very little in savings.

And that’s bad enough, but then we come across this report in USA Today, which details how the pension cuts won’t affect the highest-ranking military officers, who are already benefiting mightily from a generous pension boost provided by the previous administration.

That’s right: Put in your 20 years as a sergeant in the U.S. Army, and you can expect to see your pension trimmed back. No such imposition, however, for the admirals and generals at the top of the food chain, many of whom now receive in excess of $200,000 per year, for life, in retirement.

It’s maddening stuff. From the USA Today report:

But the deal does not affect the 2007 enhancement for top pension, which has allowed pension rates for those officers to spike. Figures for 2011 show that a four-star officer retiring with 38 years’ experience received a yearly pension of about $219,600, a jump of $84,000, or 63% beyond what was previously allowed. A three-star officer with 35 years’ experience would get about $169,200 a year, up about $39,000, or 30%. Before the law was changed, the typical pension for a retired four-star officer was $134,400. . . . In 2011, the Pentagon noted that the highest pension, $272,892, was paid to a retired four-star officer with 43 years of service.

Last year, Ben Freeman at the centrist think tank Third Way produced a solid study arguing that the Pentagon has grown overly “top heavy” and that the disproportionately large number of flag officers was costly and wasteful. Freeman’s argument was compelling then, and it’s even more compelling now when we consider the preferential treatment given to these officers in retirement.

Just in time for the 2014 midterm elections, President Obama and his allies have taken up the banner of inequality, declaring it a scourge on American society that must be eliminated. But before the president goes about reengineering the U.S. economy to better suit his preferred income-level targets, he would do well to tackle the rampant inequality within his own administration. He could start with this vast disparity between flag officers and other military retirees.

In the meantime, here’s hoping someone in Congress has the good sense to restore these cuts to military pensions and survivor benefits, to send a clear message to our veterans and service personnel that we honor their service. And then let’s get to work on real long-term spending reform that actually addresses the true drivers of debt growth.

— Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, a contributor to The Blaze, and an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay.



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