Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Kiss the Commissary Goodbye?

Who says you can't have entitlement reform? Certainly not Congress and the Obama Administration. True, they won't talk much about fixing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but when it comes to military entitlements--we prefer the term benefits, since they were actually earned--everything is apparently fair game.

Consider these recent developments:

-- In one of his final speeches before leaving the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates reiterated the need for military pension reform. Mr. Gates doesn't like the current system, which allows members of the armed forces to retire after 20 years of service and begin collecting their pension immediately.

Never mind that the typical military retiree is an E-6 who receives a little over $1600 a month, after taxes--far less than the pension check of your typical state or municipal employee, or retired CIA Director. And it's almost inevitable that Mr. Gates's successor, Leon Panetta, will take up the cause, creating some sort of "corporate" system that would grant a nominal pension after only 10 years of service--but beneficiaries wouldn't start collecting until the age of 60.

Hmmm... has anyone considered the negative impact from the loss of a tremendous recruiting tool and the loss of experienced personnel from the middle ranks? Put another way, how many military members with marketable skills will hang around for another 10 or 20 years when they can bolt for the contractor world or certain federal agencies. And, with a projected decline in recruiting (due to force reductions), it will be more difficult to fill their shoes.

-- If the retirement system overhaul isn't bad enough, the cost of military healthcare is also going up. Tri-Care co-pays are scheduled to increase under the 2012 DoD funding bill. True, the fees have remained unchanged for the past 16 years, but (as the Democrats are fond of saying), the higher co-pays will affect the most vulnerable in the military community, retirees and dependents living on fixed income.

-- Want more? How about higher costs for troops trying to earn their college degree. Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman has asked the SecDef to look at cutting the tuition assistance rate for eligible personnel, from 100% to 75%. Coffman, a retired Army reservist, believes the rate reduction would give military members more "ownership" of their higher education, forcing them to do more research in selecting schools and degree programs. Representative Coffman earned one of his college degrees using TA (as did your humble correspondent), but his proposal ignores an important fact: college tuition rates have exploded over the past 20 years, so a 25% cut in TA would force many junior enlisted members out of the education market--the very group that benefits most from the program.

-- How about higher grocery bills? The Senate Veterans Affair Committee recently passed a bill that would end subsidies for base commissaries, which currently total about $2 billion a year. And for good measure, the legislation calls on DoD to eventually merge commissaries with base exchanges, creating an on-base version of your local Wal-Mart.

Unfortunately, the commissary proposal has a number of flaws. Being able to buy groceries on post (at reduced prices) helps many military families make ends meet, particularly in high-cost-of-living areas. Without the subsidies, prices will inevitably rise, creating hardship for junior enlisted members and their dependents. According to various studies, each dollar in subsidies translates into three dollars in benefits for patrons (and the benefits are even higher for service members below the grade of E-6). Indeed, the commissary program is one of the most effective managed by DoD.

Additionally, the idea of merging commissary and BX/PX functions makes even less sense. The commissaries and exchanges have completely different business models, and merging supply chains and personnel systems (while eliminating waste) would be very, very expensive and it would take years to recoup the savings.

Besides, the proposed commissary/BX changes are nothing more than a money shuffle. Money that now subsidizes base commissaries would be shifted to a program that treats former Marines and dependents from Camp Lejeune, NC, who were exposed to hazardous drinking water for more than 30 years. As MOAA observes, victims of the water problem at Lejeune deserve treatment, but raiding the commissaries isn't the way to pay for it.

Virtually everyone who wears (or has worn) the uniform is willing to make sacrifices to get the nation's fiscal house in order. But it's dismaying to see Congress erode key military benefits, while ignoring the larger programs that threaten our fiscal solvency. But then again, the number of active duty military, dependents and retirees is relatively small, in comparison to the population as a whole. Better to go after the military crowd instead of enraging the membership base of AARP. After all, we know that members of the armed forces community don't vote, or more accurately, many of them can't vote (see next article).


TOF said...

The TA program can't begin to compare with some of the boondoggles Congress perpetrates.

1389 said...

You are correct in pointing out that military pay, pensions, and other benefits are income that these troops have EARNED, often by putting themselves willingly in harm's way. Refusing to follow through on promised earnings, whether in money or in kind or in services, is just plain WRONG.

The former Soviet Union collapsed when they could no longer pay their rank-and-file soldiers.

Just sayin'.