Retiree benefits need more reform

The Department of Defense disappointed members of the new Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission by failing this month to propose a fresh set of ideas for reforming pay and benefits, as Congress had directed.

The anticipated Pentagon proposals were to serve as a kind of launch pad for the commission’s work, which entered a new phase last week when the nine commissioners held their first public hearings.

“When the trumpet is silent who will follow,” quipped Commissioner Steve Buyer, former Republican congressman from Indiana, when invited to comment on the department’s cautious response on deadline.

Last year’s defense authorization act directed that not later than nine months after it established the commission, which meant Nov. 1, the secretary of defense “shall transmit” recommendations for modernizing compensation and retirement.

Instead, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s deputy, Ashton B. Carter, sent a letter summarizing recent pay and benefit initiatives the department had tried to push through Congress with limited success. These included a modest cap on the next pay raise and a failed attempt to raise TRICARE fees for military retirees, particularly for retirees younger than 65.

More proposals on pay and benefits will be included in the fiscal 2015 defense budget request due to Congress early next year, Carter promised.

That letter, Buyer said, left him “incredibly disappointed.”

“When the Secretary of Defense statutorily is to give guidance, and doesn’t, then the commission has to step forward and lead,” said Buyer who served on the House Armed Services Committee for years and chaired its personnel subcommittee.

“But how bold can we be, realistically,” Buyer asked, if the Obama administration opts to “stay silent?”

Carter, in his letter to Commission Chairman Alphonso Maldon Jr., did note that department staff has “expertise on military retirement.  Although we have not made any specific retirement proposals, we would be glad to discuss our thoughts on the military retirement system informally with the commission.”

That caution rankled more commissioners than Buyer.

“Disappointing would be a fair description, absolutely,” said Commissioner Mike Higgins, a retired Air Force officer who also retired recently from the professional staff of the House Armed Services Committee where he worked compensation issues.

“This is clearly not up to anyone’s expectations.”

However, Higgins said his “confidence is pretty high” DoD will propose more substantial reforms, presumably in time for the commission to consider them before it must send its own recommendations to the president and Congress next May.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at:

milupdate@aol.com

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