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Advocates: COLA fixes miss the mark

Jan. 14, 2014 - 12:00PM   |  
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The massive omnibus spending bill unveiled by congressional appropriators Monday night includes restoration of the full annual cost of living adjustment for medically retired service members and eligible survivors.

The provision preserves annual increases in military retirement pay for those with service connected injuries or illnesses deemed serious enough to warrant retirement as well as those who receive annuity payments under the Survivor Benefit Plan.

But it falls short of what most military advocacy groups seek: a repeal of the cuts for all military retirees under age 62.

“The bill reflects careful decisions to realign the nation’s funding priorities and target precious tax dollars to important programs where they are needed the most,” Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said in a statement Monday.

The $1.012 trillion bill includes all 12 annual bills that provide funding for discretionary spending, including $572 billion for the Defense Department. It meets the requirements of a budget agreement forged last month by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., setting budget limits and trimming the effects of sequestration.

Included in that legislation was the provision that limited the annual cost-of-living adjustment for military retirees under age 62 to 1 percentage point less than the annual inflation in consumer prices, starting in December 2015.

The measure has generated an uproar among veterans groups who contend that the reductions are a “breach of faith” for those who chose to become professional troops with an understanding of the risks as well as the compensation benefits.

And some lawmakers have introduced legislation to undo the cuts, which amount to $6 billion in savings, entirely.

A spokesman for Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said Tuesday that the lawmaker, who sought to undo the provision in December before it was approved, believes it is unfair to exempt only 10 percent of retirees.

“An equivalent amount of savings and more can be easily found, and I hope the Senate will move to address the unbalanced treatment of our service members,” Sessions said.

Few see a rush to change, however, as the reduction does not go into effect for two years and in the meantime, a congressional-mandated commission, the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, is expected to make recommendations on the future of military pay and benefits.

But others staunchly have defended the cuts, including architect Ryan, who wrote in a USA TODAY editorial last December that the reform only affects younger military retirees, many of whom are eligible to retire in their early 40s go on to have second careers.

“All this reform does is make a small adjustment for those younger retirees ... This is a far more modest reform than other bipartisan proposals, some of which would have fully eliminated the adjustments for inflation for working-age retirees,” Ryan wrote.

Members of the Military Coalition, an umbrella group of 33 organizations that represents 5.5 million active and retired servicemembers, say they will continue pressing for repeal.

“If you can do this to retirement, what’s next, changing the GI Bill, cutting commissary benefits, capping military pay, housing? All these things are starting to burble to the surface and concern military members and families,” said retired Air Force Col. Mike Hayden, government relations director for the Military Officers Association of America.

The omnibus spending bill will not be passed by the time an existing continuing resolution expires Wednesday at 11:59 p.m. EST. A three-day stopgap measure has been introduced that is expected to pass to keep the government open past Wednesday evening with the deadline for the omnibus expected Saturday.

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