Tough to Outflank

Published Feb 23, 2014. By Shawn Zeller. In Congressional Quarterly.

Congress’ reversal this month of its plan to reduce annual inflation adjustments to the pensions of veterans under the age of 62 demonstrated clearly again, as if more proof were needed, that veterans groups exercise enormous clout in Washington.

That wasn’t the case for the advocates of domestic programs. In order to give the veterans back their cost-of-living adjustments, Congress extended cuts in mandatory programs including Medicare and funding for states that helps with social service programs.

“Veterans have a lot of clout, and politicians are not always good at sticking to their hard choices,” says Robert Bixby , executive director of the Concord Coalition, which supports budget discipline and expressed disappointment when both chambers repealed the pension cuts that they had passed overwhelmingly two months earlier. That December vote, part of the budget deal orchestrated by the leaders of the Budget committees, Republican Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, enabled Congress to do away with cuts to military spending that the 2011 sequestration deal had called for.

Advocates for domestic programs say the rollback violates a key principle of sequestration, that both military and domestic programs should share the burden of deficit reduction. Nonetheless, majorities of both parties sided with the veterans in the House, where the vote was 326-90, and the Senate, where the vote was 95-3.

Veterans organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion, said they were pleased to a point, but objected to Congress’ decision to retain the pension cuts for new servicemembers and said they would lobby to repeal those, too. “Future military retirees will be required to serve just as long and perhaps sacrifice even more than their predecessors,” said the VFW’s commander-in-chief, William A. Thien.

Given the veterans’ good run, some success there isn’t out of the question.

Earlier this month, for instance, veterans groups celebrated the introduction of Senate legislation by Vermont independent Bernard Sanders that would give veterans more access to nontraditional and reproductive medicine. A day later, veterans groups proclaimed victory when the House passed a bill by the Republican who chairs the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Jeff Miller of Florida, that would expand benefits for veterans making use of the 2008 GI Bill. Right now, the government will pay for veterans to attend public colleges in their home states. The bill would allow them to attend any public college at the in-state rate. The Senate is considering a similar bill by Arkansas Republican John Boozman .

Congress already has expanded the new GI Bill once, in 2011, when it agreed to pay for vets to go to trade school and offered benefits to National Guard troops who have never served overseas. Last year, the Veterans Affairs Department also updated its regulation to provide more-generous housing allowances to some veterans attending college under the GI Bill.

Meanwhile, a day after the House passed Miller’s bill, Republican Tim Griffin of Arkansas introduced legislation that would head off another potential benefit trim. The bill would bar the Pentagon from closing any of the groceries or shops that now sell discounted goods to soldiers and their families on military bases. Last fall, the Pentagon begin considering a plan to save money by closing commissaries at domestic bases, prompting several senators and House members to protest.

Advocates for domestic spending, such as Joel Friedman of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, say the repeal of the pension cuts will hurt the poor at the expense of relatively well-to-do ex-soldiers. Friedman notes that more than three in four of the veterans receiving the benefit are employed in new careers and that nearly 60 percent of them are in the top fifth of wage earners.

The pension reductions were relatively modest. A typical sergeant first class retiring now with 20 years of service will receive a lifetime pension of $25,686 per year that is adjusted upward each year for inflation. The increase this year, under current law, will provide an extra $385. The reduction that was briefly in place would have trimmed that to $128.