The Gates commission meets at the White House, in 1970.

The Gates commission meets at the White House, in 1970. White House photo

What the Military Compensation Commission Must Do To Succeed

History shows that policymakers listen to blue ribbon defense commissions when they’re done right – like this one was.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and his colleagues deserve credit for the civil tone of their hearing on the findings of a long-awaited final report about reforming military pay and benefits. The Senate Armed Services Committee members’ statements and questions reflected thoughtful policymaking, not partisan posturing. But before defense think tanks cry victory and veterans groups claim the sky is falling, policymakers on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon would do well to take a historical perspective and reflect on previously successful blue ribbon defense commissions to develop a better sense of where the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission’s recommendations go from here.

Scholars and policymakers often see presidential and congressional commissions as dumping grounds for controversial issues. But this is hardly true of blue ribbon defense commissions. Drawing from work by Amy Zegart at the Hoover Institute, commissions of this sort generate new information, ideas, facts and analysis and usher in policy change by targeting the narrow band of policymakers in a position to take action. They make a difference.

Studying military compensation and retirement policy in any sort of original and rigorous way requires far more time, attention and detail than the Armed Services committee staffs are able to provide. Similarly, unlike in the “whiz-kid” days in the McNamara Pentagon, the Defense Department lacks the analytical capacity to take on such a cumbersome and daunting task. Policymakers have increasingly relied upon blue ribbon defense commissions to tackle tough issues and clear a path toward substantive policy change by appointing prominent members, a dedicated staff and allotting them a robust operating budget.

From one of the most successful defense commissions of the 20th century – the 1970 Gates Commission – three themes emerge in the process leading to substantive policy change. First, the commission chairperson is typically a larger-than-life figure in the defense community or private sector with a reputation for integrity and leadership. Second, the information-gathering process is exhaustive and includes multiple stakeholders and extensive research. Finally, the commissioners develop a sound political strategy for socializing their findings and recommendations to interested parties.

(RelatedHow Reforming Benefits Could Undermine the Pentagon’s Future)

The 1970 President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force, or Gates Commission, was arguably the most successful blue ribbon defense commission of the 20th century. Living up to a campaign promise during the 1968 presidential election, President Richard Nixon appointed a commission to study how to end the draft and build a volunteer force. Nixon purposely asked five advocates, five opponents and five undecideds to serve on the commission, including former Defense Secretary Thomas S. Gates, Jr., famed economist Milton Friedman and future Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Gates earned a reputation in the Pentagon for open-mindedness, consensus building and good humor. But any commission recommendations to end the draft would have to pass through Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who did not initially share Nixon’s enthusiasm. Gates confronted Laird early on to head off a parallel Pentagon study that could have sunk his findings. It solidified his commission’s report as the defense community’s seminal work on creating the all-volunteer force. 

Given the commission’s short timeline, Gates opted to spend its time on information briefings with Pentagon officials and private meetings with veterans’ service organizations, among others. By leaving no stone unturned, Gates ensured that every vested interest had a voice in the policymaking process. Gates also proved adept at building the commission’s political strategy by never shying away from conflict. He met privately with the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon and brokered a unanimous agreement among the commissioners on their final recommendations. Certainly, this was no easy task given the high stakes. Weeks before publicly releasing the final report, Gates dined with Army Secretary Stanley Resor to pre-brief the commission’s recommendations and diffuse the Army’s lingering concerns. In February 1970, President Nixon personally received the commission’s report at the White House. To ensure maximum exposure, the White House arranged for a commercial publisher to print 100,000 paperback copies of the report for public circulation.    

Implications for the Military Compensation Commission

The military compensation commission’s chairman, Alphonso Maldon, Jr., was assistant secretary of defense for force management under President Bill Clinton. Appearing before the SASC, Maldon managed to seamlessly delegate questions from the committee to the appropriate subject matter expert on the commission. Like Gates, Maldon should be commended for guiding the commission to its 15 unanimous recommendations. As Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., noted, that is no easy task in Washington. The group conducted arguably the most expansive, inclusive, and transparent information gathering process in defense commission history. They held 55 public hearings at military installations around the world, published an interim report in 2014 to establish the facts before releasing its final report, and hired an analytics firm to build a unique survey instrument to gauge compensation preferences. Next, the commission conducted a random-sample survey of roughly 150,000 service members and retirees across the active, guard and reserve components. When taken together, critics will have a difficult time arguing the commission did not do its due diligence during the information stage.  

The most prominent commissioners will need to help quarterback recommendations through to policy adoption and implementation. Simply letting the report “speak for itself,” as it were, is a recipe for the status quo. In particular, the retired senior military officers on the commission will have to reach out to their old colleagues and protégés in the Pentagon to explain the commission’s work, data and methods. The former members of Congress on the commission will have to lobby lawmakers personally, explaining the political pros and cons of modernization.               

Naturally, this commission’s report won’t receive the same public fanfare as the Gates report. But policymakers are certainly paying attention, particularly McCain who signaled serious interest in modernization. Similarly, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey has expressed concern over growing compensation costs. But with Dempsey scheduled to retire soon, the commission is going to need to reach other senior Defense Department officials to effect change. Once confirmed as defense secretary, Ash Carter should quickly name a replacement for outgoing undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness Jessica Wright. This will be the sixth confirmed, acting or stand-in for that key position since 2009. The Pentagon needs someone who can bring political acumen to the modernization discussion. Indeed, commissioners and policymakers still have much work to do. But if history is any guide, the MCRMC’s prospects for policy change are better than most people probably think.