None of the major changes outlined in the new military compensation report released Thursday can become law without congressional action, and so far lawmakers are viewing the massive document as a conversation starter, not a blueprint.
That's fine with outside advocates, who are warning not to rush the complex proposals for overhauling military retirement and health care.
"This is going to take a couple of years of hearings and analysis to do right," said Norb Ryan, president of the Military Officers Association of America. "What we don't want to see is them mess up anything by moving too quickly on changes."
Both the House and Senate Armed Services committees will hold hearings next week with officials from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, the launch of what both congressional panels say with be a lengthy review of military pay and benefits.
The report includes 15 recommendations, including an end to the 20-year, all-or-nothing military retirement system in favor of a 401(k)-style investment plan. Commissioners also are pushing to dismantle the military health care system in favor of a new health care allowance program for troops.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said on Thursday the committee's review will focus on how those changes would affect recruiting and retention, noting that "the services must compete with the private sector for talent."
Neither he nor Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev. — who oversees the committee's personnel panel — offered comment on the specific proposals. Heck's counterpart on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the recommendations underscore the need for reform, but he also declined to weigh in on specifics.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said he did not support the idea of "abolishing Tricare" but said he hadn't fully reviewed the commission's proposal yet. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., also expressed concerns about the health care changes, indicating that issue could be a sticking point on Capitol Hill.
Ryan said he has concerns about many of the specifics in the report, especially a proposal to abolish Tricare. Unlike the retirement changes, which won't affect current troops or retirees, closing hospitals and changing medical access would have an immediate and possibly devastating effect on the military community, he said.
He also expressed concern about some of the retirement investment plans, noting that his group will be closely eyeing provisions to boost troops' financial savvy before backing any such plan.
Still, he said he sees the report as a critical conversation starter, one that he expects won't simply end up unread on Capitol Hill shelves.
"These aren't hairbrained ideas," he said. "This is a serious group of smart people, and there are a lot of plans in here that can help us for the future."
John Stovall, director of the American Legion's national security division, echoed that optimism. He noted that veterans groups briefed on the report early Thursday had concerns about many details but also optimism about the national conversation to come.
"Getting rid of Tricare, I imagine, will be the proposal that sucks the most air out of the room," he said. "But many of these recommendations are immediately ready to be put into legislation and debated."
Officials at Concerned Veterans for America praised the retirement and health care changes, saying both would provide "more choices and flexibility" to troops. VFW officials said "the devil is in the details" of the proposals.
Most observers tempered any expectation that Congress will be able to move quickly on any of the recommendations, even less controversial ones like expanding military child care options and updates to post-service education benefits.
Mackenzie Eaglen, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the report instantly becomes "the authoritative source" for future reform, but added she thinks there is little appetite for action in the near future.
"Part of the reason is … because the Pentagon has chosen to cut end strength to ease pressure on personnel funding," she said. "This has bought both branches of government some time and given them breathing room to examine the issue for years, if they so choose."