Thursday, February 27, 2014

Military supporters doom budgetary sensibility

The negative reaction to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's proposal to cut back the size of the Army offers little hope that the federal budget can be brought under control. The reaction to Hagel's plans to shrink the peacetime Army comes shortly after Congress had second thoughts about another plan to reduce the size of the Pentagon budget. In that one, Congress has acted to rescind a budgetary rule that reduces the rate of growth in military pensions for working-age military retirees.

It makes no sense for the United States to maintain an Army sized for major conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan when the United States has pulled out of those conflicts. Hagel's downsizing, however, affects military bases, some of which will be reduced in size or eliminated, and weapons procurement, which affects congressional districts where weapons are manufactured. The reaction on Capitol Hill and in congressional districts across the country has been highly critical. These military proponents apparently would have the United States become a modern-day Sparta or Prussia, maintaining an oversized military and tempting leaders to engage in military adventurism. President Eisenhower tried to warn us about the "Military-Industrial Complex." They forget that for most of its history, the United States maintained a very small Army. Before the Civil War, the Army was a small fraternity of career soldiers. Before World War II, the U.S. Army was puny. Only after World War II set the United States at the head of Western democracies and the stabilizing force in the Cold War did the Army maintain the force required for a continuing global presence.

The change of heart over military pensions is indicative of the canonization of military service. These days, in a reversal of the shameful shunning of military personnel in the Vietnam era, anyone in uniform is declared a "hero." Even commissary clerks and accountants who've never heard a shot fired in anger, are thanked for their service and declared heroes. "Hero" has been devalued.

Military retirement allows service members to retire after 20 years with a full, lifetime pension entirely funded by taxpayers. That means, for some people, retiring at 38 years of age and collecting a pension for 40 years. The rules change, which Congress at first accepted, reduced the rate of annual cost-of-living increases for working age (up to 65) military retirees. Nearly all of these men and women hold down civilian jobs and use their military pensions to supplement their regular pay. The guarantee of a pension after 20 years remained; only the rate of annual increases changed. The budget change would have allowed them to continue this practice, but their monthly pensions would not increase at as fast a rate.

This is a small pinch of the funding flood, but if Congress does not have the willpower to make this small adjustment, it has little hope of getting the entire budget deficit under control.

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