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Military pensions overdue for trim

That didn’t take long: President Barack Obama’s signature on a hard-won House-Senate budget deal was barely dry before members of Congress from both parties began falling all over themselves to undo one of its provisions.

We refer to the 1 percentage-point reduction in military pension annual cost-of-living increases, which provides $6 billion in savings over 10 years, intended, in part, to restore badly needed funds for current national defense. Bowing to the powerful military retiree lobby, Senate Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and House Republicans Martha Roby of Alabama and Michael G. Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvaniahave introduced bills that would replace the pension trim with, respectively, higher corporate tax collections or a reduction in child tax credits for low-income families.

Opponents of the provision decry its purported unfairness to those who have served at great risk in the past, and they assert that it will harm recruitment and retention in the future. The facts suggest otherwise.

For one thing, the cut is an exceedingly modest one on a pension plan that is already far more generous than private-sector equivalents. For someone who enlisted at age 18 and retired as an Army sergeant first class at 38, lifetime retirement pay would decline from $1.734 million to $1.626 million, according to House Budget Committee staff. And that $1.626 million would still be filled out with generous military health coverage and earnings for working in the civilian sector, which most military retirees do.

This is not “breaking faith with the promise that was made to these folks that have waged war for this nation for the last 12 years,” as the president of the Military Officers Association of America, Vice Adm. Norbert Ryan, said on the PBS NewsHour. It is a small shift in resources toward training and equipping those who might have to defend us in the future. Rhetoric notwithstanding, many of the war-fighters who bear the biggest combat burdens get no pension at all; only one-eighth of enlisted personnel serve the 20 years necessary to qualify, according to a 2011 report by the Defense Business Board. As these numbers imply, most recruits didn’t join for the pension. “Surveys consistently report that military retirement has little value in recruitment or retention for at least the first 10 years of service,” the board found.

It’s impossible to say whether either the Democratic or Republican proposals to undo the pension trim will pass; their respective “pay-fors” seem equally unacceptable to members of the opposing party, while the White House seems disinclined to revisit the issue. It’s sufficiently depressing that the debate sank to this level. Like civilian entitlements, military retirement – a $50 billion-plus item in the defense budget – is overdue for deeper reforms, such as adjustment to the all-or-nothing 20-year service requirement. And it does the men and women of our armed forces no dishonor to say so.

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