Military Retirement

Dueling retirement reform plans mean more time for debate

The most important difference between the Senate and House military retirement reform plans may just be that they're different.

In terms of content, the plans only vary on a few issues. Both are tucked into their chamber's annual defense authorization bill, modeled after the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission's proposed overhaul of the traditional 20-year, all-or-nothing pension model.

Both would create a new federal contribution to troops' Thrift Savings Plan accounts, creating portable 401(k)-style investments. Both would trim some of the immediate payouts retirees get within months of leaving the force.

The House plan would dump lump-sum payouts to midcareer service members and expand government contributions and matches for troops who stay in the ranks past 20 years, provisions designed to make a military career more attractive.

The Senate plan sticks closer to the commission's proposal, with a slight delay in when federal contributions will begin.

But the specifics are less important than the two big messages behind the differing plans, according to outside advocates.

First, Congress is set on pushing retirement reform this year.

Second, that reform plan isn't finalized yet.

"The leadership has spoken on this, and they want a new retirement model. Now, we have to make sure it's the right one," said retired Vice Adm. Norb Ryan, president of the Military Officers Association of America.

Ryan's group has been a leading critic of the reform effort, largely out of fears that the process is moving too quickly and hasn't fully factored in the long-term effects on retention. White House officials also have voiced support for moving more slowly with dramatic changes to the retirement system.

But Ryan said he's unperturbed with the current congressional push, saying that plenty of time remains for a conference committee to iron out the differences over the summer. And he has confidence a reasonable plan that answers lingering retention concerns can be worked out before a final congressional vote this fall.

"Whether that means higher percentages for (contributions) or something else, we have to make sure we have that extra oomph," Ryan said. "The important thing is that we keep talking."

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, acknowledged earlier this month that the retirement plan would likely see more "adjustments" as the two chambers head into a conference to reconcile differences in their respective draft authorization bills.

But the Senate will have to finalize its draft first. Senators have indicated the measure could come up for a full chamber vote in June, which would give staffers most of the summer to discuss retirement changes and other differing provisions in the bills.

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