Budget Cuts Are Sending the Wrong Message to Veterans

White House Photo

President Obama will surely thank the troops during his State of the Union speech, but will Washington stop balancing the budget on the backs of veterans? By Alex Nicholson

Troops, veterans, and military families are used to being roughed up - by deployments, frequent moves, visible and invisible injuries, combat deaths, and so on. They’ve been at war for more than a decade while the civil-military divide has grown wider. But the continued use and abuse of the military and veteran community by politicians in Washington is an indignity that needs to end.

As Washington convenes for the State of the Union on Tuesday night, there is a fresh example of political abuse of career service members and veteran retirees: the budget agreement that overwhelmingly passed the House and Senate in December. It attempts to balance the budget on the backs of those who have already sacrificed the most, and it sends a message to those currently serving and who have served that the promises made to them and their families when they volunteered to serve are retroactively renegotiable..

Immediately after the text of the budget agreement was published, military and veteran advocates realized that retiree benefits were being defaulted upon as part of the agreement. Many members of Congress rushed to denounce the unexpected cuts and vowed to fix the “unfortunate error.” However, only a handful of lawmakers began publicly advocating for fixing the mistake in the budget bill before it was signed into law.

Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, Roger Wicker, of Mississippi, and Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire, held at least two press conferences alongside representatives of nearly all major military and veterans organizations to draw attention to the military benefits cuts and demand an immediate fix. However, few other lawmakers were willing to delay passage of the budget bill in order to make the fix.

House and Senate negotiators made a partial fix last week by reversing the cuts for disabled veterans before the final bill was passed, but they refused to go further and reverse the cuts for all military retirees. Clearly there was an opportunity available to do so, just not the will - at least among budget negotiators.

However, dozens of senators and scores of House members have vowed to support full repeal of the cuts. Some lawmakers want replacement cuts identified if the military benefits cuts are to be reversed, while others are willing to reverse the cuts even without alternative spending reductions. At least 22 bills or amendments have been introduced to restore the slashed benefits, with few lawmakers and congressional staff aware of the proliferation of similar, duplicative, and even competing efforts among their colleagues.

Veteran and service member advocacy groups are largely indifferent as to how the cuts to their members’ retirement benefits are repealed as long as the repeal happens quickly. 

But the failure of supportive lawmakers to coalesce around a universal solution - such as restore cuts with or without a “pay-for,” and if “with” then from where the alternative spending cuts should come - is prolonging the process. It is also prolonging the agony that troops, veterans, and their families are experiencing while this political battle drags on in Washington.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has suggested that time is not of the essence in fixing this error because the cuts will not even take effect for two more years, so Congress can address the issue later in the year or even next year. But this stance completely ignores the human element of these types of Washington political dramas - the toll they take on service members and veterans.

The spouse of one friend who is an Army lieutenant colonel stationed in North Carolina wrote about the retirement benefits cuts, “There goes my child’s college fund,” referring to the more than $100,000 their family stands to lose during the course of her upcoming retirement.

The anxiety that veterans are already experiencing over this policy change is also evident in the voices of those who call into the offices of veteran organizations and congressional offices to express outrage and ask what is being done. And it will likely also manifest in upcoming local town hall events that members of Congress hold in their states and districts over their frequent vacation periods.

As the Senate Armed Services Committee holds a critical issue on this hearing Tuesday and as the president delivers his State of the Union - where he will no doubt thank the troops - lawmakers need to focus on agreeing upon a simple bipartisan solution to its grand budget mistake and fast-tracking that solution onto the floor of each chamber. 

This is how politicians can demonstrate that they are truly “for the troops” or “support veterans,” instead of just continuing to use and abuse them for political purposes.

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