White House bows to political realities on military pay

The White House Monday sidestepped the politically volatile issue of military pay by exempting troops from a two-year federal pay freeze that will affect all other federal employees.

Had military pay been included in the Obama administration's deficit-cutting proposal, it would almost certainly have been met with stiff resistance on Capitol Hill, where efforts to rein in military benefits have long been dead on arrival.

For fiscal 2011, the House-passed defense authorization bill includes a 1.9 percent pay raise for the military -- continuing what has become a tradition of adding a half percent to whatever annual raise the Pentagon requests.

The Senate Armed Services Committee's version of the measure authorizes the 1.4 percent pay raise requested by the Pentagon, but Personnel Subcommittee Chairman Jim Webb, D-Va., has been working on an amendment to the bill that would further boost pay for certain military occupation specialties. That bill could go to the Senate floor as early as next week.

Citing demands on troops who have been heavily deployed overseas, Congress has even balked at more modest efforts to increase the military's TRICARE health plan co-payments and other fees despite rising health care costs that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said are "eating the department alive."

"For the last nine years, people in uniform have been bearing 100 percent of the country's wartime sacrifice," Steve Strobridge, a retired Air Force colonel and the director of government relations at the Military Officers Association of America, said Monday.

A reasonable pay raise is "the minimum we can do to recognize the burden [the military carries] for the rest of us," he added.

The chairmen of the president's deficit commission, who earlier this month recommended an ambitious $100 billion in defense cuts in fiscal 2015 alone, delicately addressed the issue of military pay by suggesting a three-year freeze on salaries for non-combat military personnel -- a move the panel estimates would save $9.2 billion.

But while many lawmakers may not have signed on to the inclusion of military pay in the president's proposal, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in a statement Monday that freezing noncombat military pay would have saved significantly more money and "added an element of fairness."

"Hundreds of thousands of federal civilian employees work alongside military employees in the Department of Defense and other agencies," said Hoyer, whose Maryland district is home to many federal workers. "In fact, the first American casualty in Afghanistan was a CIA agent -- a federal civilian employee."

Lawrence Korb, who served as the Pentagon's personnel director in the Reagan administration, acknowledged that any efforts to freeze military pay would be politically infeasible right now.

But Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, suggested that military pay -- and benefits such as health care and tax-free housing allowances that make up 60 percent of troops' compensation packages -- needs to be reviewed.

"You've got to take a whole look at the military pay system over the long term," he said. "But in the short term with people at war it's pretty tough."

Korb recommended any attempt to rein in costs for military compensation should be part of a broader package to bring down the deficit. Doing so, Korb said, would give political cover to lawmakers, who could vote for a wide-ranging deficit-cutting measure even if they do not support targeting military pay.

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