Maya MacGuineas: Will Congress Listen to the Military on Pay?

Maya MacGuineas, President of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, wrote a commentary that appeared in the Wall Street Journal Washington Wire. It is reposted here.

With members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff arguing for slower growth in military pay as a way to maintain military readiness, one might think Congress would quickly adopt their recommendation. Experience, however, suggests this is unlikely.

The U.S. military spends roughly $200 billion on compensation for military and civilian personnel and an additional $50 billion on its health system—almost half of the basic military budget. Spending on military personnel alone has increased 37 percent since 2001. And between 2000 and 2012, funding for military health care rose 130 percent, even after adjusting for inflation.

This week, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and other members of the Joint Staff testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. To continue investing in readiness and modernization at a level they deemed critical within the sequester’s constraints, they said, they wanted to slow the growth of basic military pay and reform the military health-care system—saving roughly $31 billion over six years.

Congress has routinely rejected military proposals for potential savings in areas as diverse as retiring outdated weapons systems such as the V-22 Osprey and a host of sensible health-care reforms. Under Tricare, the Defense Department’s heavily subsidized health-care system, beneficiaries pay less than one-fifth the cost of a civilian health insurance plan, according to a January Congressional Budget Office report. In fact, in the past Congress has even prohibited the Defense Department from increasing premiums, deductibles and co-payments in military health-care programs. And recently, almost before the ink was dry on the Ryan-Murray budget compromise, lawmakers undid some of the deal’s immensely sensible reforms to limit cost-of-living-adjustments to military pensions before normal retirement age. Never mind that many of those affected are in full-time jobs in the private sector.

Military compensation is a tricky issue, particularly when so many Americans are sacrificing for their country. But as the Joint Chiefs point out, reforms are the best way to maintain investments critical to keeping our country and military safe. Congress would be smart to consider their recommendation, not just steamroll over it.

"My Views" are works published by members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, but they do not necessarily reflect the views of all members of the committee.