GOP Wrong on COLA Wars

by Quin Hillyer

Word is now out that the House leadership team will put forth a “clean” bill to raise the debt ceiling, having failed in various attempts to tie any other demands to the debt-limit hike. Frankly, it should have been easy to put a single additional issue on the bill, such as blocking the insurance-company bailout in Obamacare, or blocking the medical-device tax, or something conservative. But too many members are pursuing too many different agendas with too little sense of a team effort, so all these proposals failed to garner enough advance support — which is a shame, and a testament to an inept Republican conference. The clean debt expansion will represent another strategic and tactical loss for a fumbling, stumbling, bumbling, and humbled Republican conference.

Before settling for a clean hike, though, the House leadership tried pushing an utterly inane last idea: blocking the recently enacted tweak in the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for military personnel, so as to restore the old formula and again spend an extra few billion (what is it — $8 billion? — I forget) over the course of five or ten years, or something. . . . It almost doesn’t matter the exact number, because the principle of the thing is what should be at issue. That idea, however, also failed to gain enough additional support, with conservatives rightly arguing that it makes less than zero sense to protest a hike in the debt limit by holding it hostage to . . . drum roll please . . . more spending. That’s what the restoration of the COLA would have been: more spending. The lack of logic would have been stunning: We don’t like bigger debt; so, in order to protest bigger debt, we will refuse the bigger debt unless you make the debt even bigger still.

Got that? 

Aside from that Humpty Dumpty logic, there is another problem with the month-long conniption fits over the military COLAs. Pace Senator Kelly Ayotte and others, the problem with adjusting the military COLAs was not that the COLAs didn’t, on the merits, need a little tweaking, leading to at least some savings, but that the military COLAs should not have been singled out for the tweaks and the savings. What Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan proposed for the COLAs was good policy; what was wrong was that other federal workers would not have been subject to the same tweaks. In short, the right way to fix the unequal treatment of the military was not to forgo the military tweaks, but to apply the same tweaks to all other federal workers as well.

Federal pensions are a not-insignificant driver of the national debt. They need adjusting, because they represent a noticeable portion of the federal government’s unfunded liabilities. In an otherwise ill-considered deal, Ryan at least was attempting to act responsibly by insisting on at least a small step towards larger federal pension reform. Even if military personnel should not have been the only ones asked to make tiny adjustments, they should not have those adjustments overturned if the adjustments themselves are good policy. For reasons Ryan can explain far better than my space and expertise here allows, they are good policy. They will be good policy if applied to other federal workers, too, and statesmen of both parties ought to so apply them — and then get busy with even larger reforms that save much more significant money.

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