Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. (AFP)
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee wants to delay any major military retirement and compensation debate until next year, instead focusing on other areas of potential savings for the fiscal 2015 defense budget.
“This is a big issue, and we should not deal with it piecemeal,” Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said Thursday. “We should only deal with it after the [Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission] comes back early next year.
“If you set up a commission, you get good people looking at things in a serious way, then you ought to wait until they come back. So I don’t see anything happening this year.”
The comments came during a roundtable with reporters by McKeon and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The two top GOP lawmakers on defense issues panned most of the Pentagon budget proposals floated by military leaders this week, saying the White House lacks a clear strategy on the future needs of the services.
The event served as a preview of what promises to be a tough, months-long fight ahead on the annual defense authorization bill, legislation that lawmakers hope can be finished before the November elections and subsequent lame-duck session of Congress.
Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined administration plans for a $496 billion fiscal 2015 defense budget that includes a 1 percent pay hike for troops, massive cuts to commissary subsidies, new health care fees for both active-duty family members and retirees, a cuts in housing allowances.
Inhofe said that some of the compensation and benefits cuts in the budget plan “make sense,” specifically backing plans to trim housing allowances to 95 percent of estimated local rental costs, with troops paying the other 5 percent out of pocket.
But he stopped short of endorsing any of the compensation proposals, noting that any such changes should grandfather in troops who were promised certain levels of compensation when they enlisted. He also said a comprehensive benefits adjustment plan would be preferable to small, haphazard cuts.
Veterans groups have pushed for the Pentagon to hold off on large-scale changes to pay and benefits until after the compensation commission issues its report in February 2015. They criticized Hagel’s budget outline as unfriendly to troops and their families, and insulting considering their sacrifices over the last 12 years of war.
McKeon and Inhofe also expressed serious concerns with announced plans to trim Army end strength to around 450,000 soldiers, with the possibility of an even smaller force if mandatory sequestration spending caps aren’t rolled back in coming years.
And the two blasted the inclusion of a $26 billion “opportunity” fund in the budget plans, calling it an attempt to hold critical defense programs hostage in exchange for unpalatable tax increases.
But neither offered specifics on revenue alternatives to pay for more troops, equipment or benefits in the near term.
McKeon said a broader economic recovery would help offset some lost tax dollars, but criticized White House job creation efforts. Both men said mandatory spending must be brought under control, but were pessimistic about any major reforms in coming months.
One idea that neither thought would produce meaningful savings was another base closure round, which Pentagon leaders have lobbied for.
McKeon said military officials have failed to provide evidence that closing or restructuring bases would create lasting savings, pointing to questionable results from the 2005 round. Inhofe said he worries more about the short-term costs than the long-term projections.
“The only thing that’s consistently predictable in a BRAC round is that in the first three years it’s going to cost money,” he said. “These are our crisis years. So we’re going to fight it tooth and nail.”