Why Congress Cut Veteran Benefits & What You Can Do About It

6-web

If you’re in the U.S. military, or if you ever were, chances are the 2013 holiday season hasn’t been too jolly. Earlier this month, President Obama and Congress teamed up to cut cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees. Despite promises that cuts would affect only future recruits and not those whose contracts are already signed, a new executive order means that all military retirees under the age of 62 will suffer a 1% cut in their pension benefits starting in 2014. 

Proponents of the cut claim it will save our government $6 billion over the next decade, which is crucially important as mounting healthcare costs become a key DoD expenditure. According to the Congressional Budget Office, veteran healthcare spending is estimated to grow from “$51 billion in fiscal 2013 to $65 billion by 2017 and to $90 billion by 2030.” As a percentage, veteran healthcare is estimated to jump from 9% to 14% of the overall DoD budget by 2030, which sounds really big until you realize that’s roughly equivalent to what the DoD spent on R&D this year. Still, the fact remains that the growing cost of veteran healthcare is certainly an existent, if minor, concern.

But it is disingenuous at best for our legislators to claim that this budgetary concern is somehow more important than the health and well-being of our soldiers. This is especially true given the repeated and egregious failures of character and strategic judgment displayed in their fiscal mismanagement of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some examples:

  1. Our Congress’ budgetary concern doesn’t seem to extend to the Pentagon itself, which has never been audited. In spite of a Congressional mandate that an audit take place in 1996, the Pentagon has somehow spent an estimated $8.5 trillion unaccounted-for taxpayer dollars since 1996 alone. So while our Congress cannot agree to go after the generals and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. who have wasted hundreds of billions of dollars, they can of course agree to take back the relatively paltry $6 billion they promised to people who would actually miss it – our soldiers.
  2. We have lost at least ten times as much as Congress is proposing to save by cutting military pensions to contractor fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan. A 2011 report estimated we have lost “as much as $60 billion on contract fraud and abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, or “about $1 for every $3.50 spent on contractors in those countries over the last decade.” Worse yet, many of these contractors had been accused of fraud before being awarded more multi-billion-dollar government contracts. If Congress had prioritized saving money when these wars were at their height, perhaps we would not be fretting so hard over $6 billion of our soldiers’ pensions now.
  3. Most unforgivably, Congress is cutting cost-of-living adjustments even as veteran poverty remains a huge national issue. There are currently 900,000 military retirees on food stamps, and 342,000 receive public housing assistance. The last thing current and future veterans need is a cost-of-living reduction.To propose such a thing in the name of fiscal responsibility is simply monstrous.

None of this is shocking given the historical context in which it takes place. The 2013 Congress passed just 58 bills into law in 2013. They are on pace, in fact, to become the least productive Congress in American history. In the midst of literally unprecedented gridlock, it’s revealing that the one thing Republicans and Democrats can agree on is cutting pensions for our troops. It’s even more revealing that, despite widespread public opposition to the measure, it passed easily.

For those of us disappointed or angry with Congress’ sometimes mind-boggling recent choices, how can we harness that energy and effectively fight back? The first and easiest step is targeting select members of Congress and pushing them to act in our interest. We do elect them, after all. Remembering that we hold the true position of power is all that’s required for success. We can support legislation that works in our interest.

Two such bills are before Congress right now. The first is House Resolution 3804; the second is the Senate’s Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act.

H.R. 3804, introduced by Rep. Julie Brownley (D-CA) would reverse the military pensions cuts entirely. This bill is straightforward and should be a bipartisan no-brainer, but it’s new (introduced December 23rd) and could use your vocal support.

San Diego Representatives Susan Davis, Duncan Hunter, and Scott Peters have the power to use their positions on the House Armed Services Committee on our veterans’ behalf. If you live in the San Diego area, find your district, contact Reps. Davis, Hunter, or Peters, and ask them to cosponsor H.R. 3804 in support of military pay.

Sen. Al Franken’s (D-MN) S. 162 would provide expanded funding ($40 million, the legislative equivalent of chump change) to community programs that provide treatment-based alternatives to incarceration for the mentally ill, including specific provisions for veterans in the justice system. It isn’t a complete solution – veterans will still have to commit crimes in order to benefit – but it’s a start. The good news: the bill has broad bipartisan support and a 74% probability of passing. The bad news: it’s being blocked from a floor vote and needs your help.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has signed on as a cosponsor, but California’s other Senator, Dianne Feinstein, has yet to jump on board. Contact Sen. Feinstein by calling her Washington office, or if you’re in California, her state office. Ask her to unify California’s response in favor of mental health and effective care for veterans by supporting the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act.

If you’re not in California, contact your representative and ask them to do the same.

Both bills are coming up for vote in the early stages of January 2014, before the pension cuts go into effect. The time to pressure our representatives is now.