Disabled Veterans Get Their Pension Raises

Although considered only a partial solution to a persistent Pentagon problem, disabled military veterans will have cuts to their pensions restored as part of a new spending bill introduced Monday evening.  Budget chiefs released details of a $1 trillion spending deal, which includes a “fix,” as they are calling it, to help those military veterans who have medical disabilities, and some military widows.

“We came up with the fix for the disability and the survivor part, which is a down payment while they get ready to do comprehensive reform and get ready to do the presidential commission,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski said ahead of the bill’s release Monday.  “So we made a down payment for the neediest, which were the disabled of working age and survivors.”

There were many changes that were made in last year’s budget agreement, the military pension being one of the most controversial.  The Pension changes will be addressed at a later time this year by the Senate Armed Services Committee and other panels.  In the budget deal reached by Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan last month, the cut to military veterans included the reductions to disabled veterans’ pensions.  This cut would decrease the annual cost-of-living adjustment for working-age military retirees by a total of 1 percent over 10 years.

Drawing strong criticism from many groups and people, the inclusion of disabled veterans has left many veterans, and even politicians worried.  The criticism seems to be coming from all angles, like from veterans’ groups, members of Congress in both parties, and even Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.  Seeing the amount of criticism and complaints from so many groups, Ryan and Murray quickly referred to it as a mistake and backed away from including veterans who retired for medical reasons.

Of the approximately $6 billion that was to be originally cut, the move to reverse the cuts for disabled military retirees as part of the new spending bill addresses less than a tenth of it.   Sen Jeff Sessions estimated that, coupled with a reversal of the decrease in annuities for military survivors, a provision to eliminate the COLA cuts for disabled vets would cost approximately $593 million.

“So you still have got the vast majority of people who served their country, have been receiving payments or expect payments, receiving quite a bit of reductions,” Sessions said.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte has been speaking against a handful of defense-related cuts in the budget agreement, including the decrease in the cost-of-living adjustment for those veterans who retired due to a service related injury.

“The more I press the Pentagon for answers, the more I learn how egregious the military benefit cuts are in the budget deal,” the New Hampshire Republican said.  “The cost-of-living adjustment cuts unfairly shortchange military retirees, military survivors, and the combat-injured to pay for more Washington spending.”

Ayotte only one of the handfuls of senators seeking a repeal of the military pension cuts to a three month extension of long-term unemployment insurance.  The measure previously stated would be paid for “within the budget window,” Ayotte and other senators said in a joint release.

Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker said the decision to reverse the pension cuts for disabled vets would not keep him from voting for the appropriations bill. Wicker led an effort by Republican senators to attach an amendment reversing the cuts to the budget agreement, but were eventually unsuccessful.

“It may take a little steam out of our effort, but I just think it is so unfair to change the rules for veterans who have already completed their part of the bargain that I think eventually sometime in the next year or so, get the whole thing corrected,” Wicker said.  There is much to do if Congress is to restore the full funding of COLA, though.  Members of Congress have filed about a dozen bills in less than a month to help restore it.  Congress has plenty of options for rolling back many of the cuts made.

Some push for an outright repeal of the cuts, such as Sen. Mark Pryor and Sen. Kay Hagan. Others, including Rep. Dan Maffei and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, are seeking to close a tax loophole used by offshore corporations to offset funding to reverse the cuts.  When asked at the National Press Club about Rep. Darrell Issa’s proposal to tie the funds to changes in the postal system, the Chief of Staff for the Army, Gen. Ray Odierno, said that he has “not thought about it being linked to anything else.”

“It’s time for us to look at pay and compensation… I believe if we continue on the path that we’re on, that we’ll have to reduce our end strength even more,” he added. His comments are similar to those made by Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, who both declined to say if the cuts from the Defense Department’s budget for 2015 could include compensation, or where they intend to try to cut.

Backing the budget agreement, the two Defense officials pitted themselves against veterans’ groups, including the Military Coalition and the Military Officers Association of America.  These groups continue to lobby lawmakers to restore the full $6 billion in cuts.Senators don’t expect to let the issue go.  Sen. Lindsey Graham said members will push to repeal the full cuts “until we get it fixed,” adding that he hopes a solution will be found by the November elections.

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