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Navy vet in Congress supports lower retiree COLAs

Dec. 4, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Jim Bridenstine
Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., during a campaign has introduced legislation that would ease massive planned budget cuts under sequestration in 2014 and 2015 in part by lowering the annual cost-of-living adjustment in various benefits for military retirees and veterans, as well as Social Security recipients. (Sue Ogrocki / AP)
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A Navy veteran in Congress proposes protecting defense spending with an ambitious plan for cutting federal entitlements — including military retired pay.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., a former Navy pilot who flew combat missions off the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln over Iraq and Afghanistan, introduced a bill on Monday that he calls the Provide for the Common Defense Act, which would relieve planned sequestration cuts in the 2014 and 2015 defense budgets by tackling federal benefits.

His plan is far from the only proposal pending in Congress, but Bridenstine is a vocal conservative affiliated with the tea party movement, and his status as a veteran willing to cut military benefits provides political cover for other lawmakers who share his view about the importance of protecting defense spending ahead of other programs, according to congressional aides involved in House and Senate budget negotiations.

Lawmakers are looking for a way to avoid the next round of sequestration. Expected to begin Jan. 15, the cuts on tap for the current fiscal year would force a $53 billion reduction in defense spending if Congress and President Obama cannot agree on an alternative budget plan.

Military retired pay is actually a peripheral target of Bridenstine’s plan. One of the provisions of his bill, HR 3639, would apply a much-discussed but controversial change in how cost-of-living adjustments are calculated for Social Security and other federal benefits linked to the Consumer Price Index.

The so-called Chained-CPI plan endorsed by Bridenstine would result in annual COLAs that are 0.3 percent to 0.5 percent less by changing assumptions on the measurement of the cost of goods and services to take into account the possibility that consumers would substitute cheaper goods to avoid rising prices, such as buying a different brand or product.

For retirees, the immediate impact of this change is small. For example, the 1.5 percent COLA that took effect on Dec. 1 and will first appear in January checks would have been about 1.3 percent under the Chained-CPI formula.

However, his proposal assumes the change would result in $216 billion in savings because it would apply to a wide range of federal entitlements.

If implemented, the Chained-CPI calculation could also apply to veterans’ disability and survivor benefits. Unlike military retired pay, veterans’ benefits are not automatically linked to changes in consumer prices but rather are traditionally increased by the same percentage through an act of Congress.

In a statement, Bridenstine said his bill “strengthens defense, reforms entitlements and reduces the national deficit by $200 billion.”

Undoing sequestration is the chief reason for the bill, he said.

“China is attempting to control international waters and airspace as its own while also endeavoring to build the world’s largest navy and air force, including state-of-the-art aircraft carriers and nuclear ballistic missile submarines.

“Russia is investing $750 billion into military modernization and buildup while threatening nuclear war and invading its former Soviet satellite states which are striving for freedom and independence. These aggressive actions are an attempt to deny free markets and American freedom of navigation.”

Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., a cosponsor of the bill, said the effort is designed to protect defense programs from being cut to pay for lower priority programs.

“Washington has a spending problem, but incessantly and mindlessly cutting national security will not get us out of our fiscal mess,” Lamborn said. “Completely eliminating the Department of Defense would not even pay off this year’s deficit, let alone seriously reduce our $17 trillion national debt. Congress needs to give our military relief rather than use it as a punching bag.”

The Chained-CPI proposal is strongly opposed by many congressional Democrats but it is an idea partly endorsed by the Obama White House as a potential part of a larger spending and debt reduction plan.

In addition to revising the COLA calculation, Bridenstine’s proposal would increase Medicare premiums and deductibles, cap growth in agriculture subsidies and require federal civilian employees to contribute slightly more to their government retirement funds.

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