The Faith Not Kept

May 1, 1999

In late February, the Senate voted, 91­8, to restore the military retirement system that had been in effect before the devastating “Redux” legislation of 1986. Redux, along with several smaller changes that were adopted previously, cut the lifetime value of the 20-year retirement program by about 25 percent for people who entered service after the measure was enacted.

This year, with retention problems on the rise, the Joint Chiefs of Staff made restoration of the retirement system the top priority in their budget request.

There is opposition, though. The Congressional Budget Office, the Washington Post, and various others say that repeal of Redux would be a mistake. It would cost a great deal of money and it might not cure the retention problems. They say that Redux would not even be an issue had the service chiefs not made it one by pumping up the expectations of the force.

Indeed, abolishing Redux probably won’t cure the problem in a single stroke. The problem is bigger than that. It encompasses such things as frequent family separations, pay inequities, and the perception that the government no longer understands or cares much about the hardships, privations, and stresses of life in the armed forces.

One short-notice deployment follows another to distant operations in which the nation’s interest is marginal. The sacrifice that this demands from service members and their families seems to be expended almost casually.

The relationship of faith and trust that military people once had-or thought they had–with the nation they served is all but gone. If the CBO and its colleagues do not believe that Redux was one of the main rocks in the landslide, they are wrong.

Redux was largely the handiwork of Les Aspin, then chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and later Secretary of Defense. He regarded the military retirement system as a “boondoggle,” especially the benefits for those who retired after 20 years of service.

It is popular now to claim that the goal of Redux was to retain people for more than 20 years, but the explanations in 1986 were about saving money. The services had no real difficulty in keeping people beyond 20 years. The more frequent problem in those days was an excess of older veterans blocking mobility for those below them in the ranks.

The purpose of Redux was to save money, and the justification given for doing it at the expense of military members was that their retirement program was “too generous.”

Too generous compared to what? The comparison most readily at hand for military people was with the benefits of Civil Service personnel who worked alongside them. Job for job, the civil servants–who hardly ranked among the privileged classes themselves–made more money, had more regular hours, and were not subject to being sent to faraway places with strange sounding names. Comparison with private sector employment in general produced even starker differences.

The standard explanation had always been that the civilians did not have the great deferred benefits of the military member, such as the superb retirement program and free medical care for life.

Redux took the heart out of the retirement system. Then the government announced that it was unable to keep the promise on health care for life. The best it can offer retirees (and many active duty families) is Tricare and the troubles by which it is still besieged. The medical program that civil servants and members of Congress have–the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program–is not open to military people. Among other reasons, it is said to be too expensive.

At present, the spotlight is on Redux. The leading objection to repealing it is the cost–some $6 billion over the next six years. But if that is too great an expense for the entire United States with its population of 272.1 million, consider the proportional impact on the 1.4 million members of the armed services of the same $6 billion levied as a Redux penalty.

The National Journal recently interviewed Bob Emmerichs, who as Aspin’s top aide in 1986, was largely responsible for the crafting of Redux. Emmerichs thinks the reduced benefit now in effect is still too generous. As for going back to the old system, he says that would be “throwing money down the rat hole.”

CBO also found the Senate’s proposal for a 4.8 percent military pay raise next year objectionable. CBO doubted that any pay gap with the private sector really exists, adding that “the whole notion of relying on a pay-gap estimate to set pay raises is inappropriate.” The attitude shines through like a beacon.

Not that anybody planned it that way, but in effect what the government did in Redux and similar actions was to substitute accounting and sharp practice for leadership and good faith.

The decision that Congress will make this year is not just about the restoration of what was once the No. 1 military retention benefit. It is also about restoring a relationship between the military people and the nation. It is the first step–and a big one–in the process, and it is important that this time we get it right.