WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's "taxpayer focused" budget for fiscal 2018 includes smaller cost-of-living adjustments for veterans benefits payouts and eliminating those adjustments for some federal civilian retirees altogether.
The controversial suggestions are likely to be met with opposition from outside advocates and some lawmakers, but White House officials insist the moves are part of a broader strategy to balance the budget without sacrificing essential government services.
"(In past budgets) we haven't put ourselves in the role of going back to taxpayers and say, 'Here's a program that is worth spending your money on,'" said Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. "These are the programs we can justify.
"I can look a taxpayer in the eye and say, 'I need your tax money so I can help a veteran who lost two legs in the Middle East.' But we're not doing that for a long list of social programs that have little impact."
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The $1.1 trillion spending plan includes $54 billion more for the Defense Department than is currently allowed under congressionally approved spending caps, and a $4 billion boost in Veteran Affairs discretionary spending from current levels.
To offset those costs and balance the budget over the next decade, the proposal calls for significant cuts in State Department funding, foreign aid accounts and a host of other non-military programs.
It also includes the cost-of-living adjustment changes. The White House plan would extend the practice of rounding down veterans payouts to the nearest whole dollar, trimming a few cents off their checks.
Veterans groups have successfully fought the practice in recent years, arguing the small amounts build up to significant losses for veterans over time. White House officials say the move will save about $20 million in fiscal 2018 alone and almost $2.7 billion over the next decade.
The civilian retirees changes would be even more dramatic. Trump’s plan calls for eliminating annual cost-of-living increases Federal Employee Retirement System enrollees completely, and lowering the adjustments for Civil Service Retirement System enrollees by 0.5 percent.
Together, those changes generate more than $500 million in savings for fiscal 2018 and almost $42 billion in savings over 10 years.
But they also represent substantial reductions in payouts for the estimated 70,000 federal retirees each year, along with the hundreds of thousands more already collecting their pensions. CSRS beneficiaries are not eligible for Social Security payments. FERS employees are, but those government pensions still make up a significant portion of their retirement income.
White House officials did not directly address any of those payout reductions ahead of the official budget roll out Tuesday morning.
But explanatory documents released early said the plan will "restore fiscal discipline and make the hard decisions to put our country on a path to repay the debt in full."
The plan also includes almost $29 billion more for the VA’s Choice Card program over the next decade, extending the contentious program which allows veterans to seek care outside the department’s medical system with taxpayers paying the bill.
Administration officials also plan to increase the number of additional Afghan Special Immigrant visas in coming years, spending an extra $15 million on the program next year alone. That effort has drawn praise from many in the veteran community for helping to bring translators and other at-risk foreign nationals to the U.S.
And Trump White House officials hope to close a loophole in the post-9/11 GI Bill benefits that allows veterans to attend pricey flight schools. Capping tuition at those institutions would save at least $42 million annually.
House and Senate officials have already voiced skepticism about the overall Trump budget plan, noting that it still requires lawmakers to find a deal to lift the federal spending caps. They’ve been unable to reach that compromise for the last six years.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.