House Armed Services chairman takes aim at Pentagon pensions

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee wants to pare the defense budget by slicing $4 billion off the $18 billion military retirement program. Military pensions are one of Washington's touchiest subjects, and if Rep. Les Aspin's proposal gains much support in Congress, a bitter fight could ensue. To those in uniform, their pensions are a well-deserved reward for doing an arduous job.

But critics, such as Office of Management and Budget (OMB) chief David A. Stockman, feel military retirement is far too generous.

``Congress and the Pentagon have dickered with the retirement issue for two decades,'' said Representative Aspin, a Wisconsin Democrat, when announcing his proposal Thursday. ``It's time to bring matters to a head.''

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Specifically, he hopes to persuade his committee to include a $4 billion pension cut in the defense authorization bill they will draw up later this month. He will not propose exactly how that money might be saved. He says he will leave to the Pentagon the task of drafting pension cut details.

``Congress won't be passing on a complicated plan,'' he says. ``It would be a straight up or down vote on should the retirement system be reduced.''

If adopted, Aspin's proposal would reduce the defense budget $4 billion. But there would be little immediate effect on the overall federal budget, because of the complicated accounting system under which military pensions are paid.

It would be a number of years before the change actually saved the federal government money, Aspin concedes. But he says the cost of military retirement is a long-term problem that Congress must deal with.

The cost of the military retirement program has quadrupled in the last 20 years, to $18 billion.

Most of this money goes to those who spend their full career on active military duty, and are eligible to retire after 20 years of service.

These ``careerists'' get a pension equal to 2.5 percent of their final base pay, multiplied by their years of service. The pension is periodically adjusted to keep up with inflation.

To those in uniform, this pension is just compensation for years of sometimes dangerous service, often far from families, and frequent moves. It is ``the most important reenlistment factor among careerists,'' the Army's chief of staff, Gen. John A. Wickham Jr., told a congressional panel this week.

Military pension cuts, said General Wickham, would jeopardize the all-volunteer force by making it more difficult to attract and hold quality soldiers.

Critics point out that military basic pay has been raised to the point where today it is almost comparable to civilian government pay, and that military retirees typically leave service while young enough to embark on a whole new career.

The military pension system, and the fierceness with which the Pentagon protects it, is ``a scandal, it's an outrage,'' OMB chief Stockman said before a congressional panel in February.

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