Top military brass has a desperate message for lawmakers: please cut our pay.
Congress is considering proposals from the Pentagon's most senior officials to reduce service member pay raises to below inflation, freeze pay for generals and other high-ranking officers, limit housing allowance increases, and increase fees for military health care.
The request might be odd for any other agency, but the Pentagon must reduce its budget by up to $1 trillion over the next decade. The proposals are estimated to save the Department of Defense $2 billion in fiscal 2015 and $31 billion over the next five years.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the United States' highest-ranking military officer, said he had been driven to support changes in military compensation because of the deep budget cuts known as sequestration. Furthermore, added another top military official, although compensation accounts for one-third of the Pentagon's budget, it accounts for only about 10 percent of the proposed cuts.
The brass was keen to bat away suggestions that they wanted to cut the pay of servicemembers. “We’re not advocating direct cuts to troops’ pay … this package slows the growth of basic pay and housing allowances while … modernizing our health care system,” Dempsey told senators at a hearing on the issue.
To make their case, the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Senior defense officials testified that over the past two decades, including more than a decade of war, military compensation has climbed from “deeply unsatisfactory” to generous, surpassing similar civilian positions. During that timeframe an Army sergeant — the second lowest-grade among non-commissioned officers — rose from being compensated in the 50th percentile of civilians with comparable experience and education to being in the 90th percentile.
“I don’t think any of us [in the Joint Chiefs of Staff] would say our people are overpaid … but if our joint force is to be sized, modernized and kept ready to fight, we're going to have to place compensation on a more sustainable trajectory," said Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Pentagon is pressing lawmakers to take swift action on reducing future pay increases, and not to wait for assessments such as that of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, expected to finalize a report in February 2015.
Dempsey warned that waiting for that report, due to the nature of the budget cycle, could push off changes by two years. That delay alone could cost $18 billion in savings, which then would have to be cut from other areas of the Defense Department's budget.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the retiring chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, lamented that fiscal restraints had forced the issue, but acknowledged the necessity of considering “painful measures.”
“As long as the statutory budget caps remain in place, we do not have the option of simply rejecting the compensation proposals,” he said.
Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, said that reducing future increases in compensation was only on the table because he has already “raided every other pot of money available to me to pay for a ready Marine Corps.”
Support for generous military compensation - and defense funding in general - usually crosses party lines on Levin's committee, and so the lamentation of cuts continued throughout the committee's questioning.
“This is not the right signal to send those who volunteer in time of war,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who turned his fire on defense budget cuts. “Because of misguided fiscal priorities, we are now being forced to make false choices between paying our troops and their families what they deserve and giving them the training and capabilities required to accomplish their mission.”