WASHINGTON—The most disliked part of the just-passed congressional budget deal is already on its way to being replaced.
Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., on Thursday filed a House bill that would restore the $6 billion cut to military veteran retirement benefits. H.R. 3787 would replace the cut with a plan to combine Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) drug-buying power, a move that would save an estimated $7 billion over 10 years.
“We should never ask personnel to lose pay until we can eliminate some of the waste in government,” Lankford told me shortly after filing the bill on Thursday.
Within the last week, both the House and Senate passed H. J. Res. 59, a bipartisan budget agreement that replaces $63 billion in automatic spending cuts during the next two years while cutting $85 billion over the life of the plan. The deal includes a 1 percent decrease in the yearly Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for retired military personnel under the age of 62, which would cost a retiring Army sergeant first class $3,700 per year, according to the Military Officers Association of America.
Lankford’s bill not only restores the military pension, but it also includes a matching 1 percent decrease in yearly COLA for all members of Congress, a move he said is more about principle than money.
“It’s absolutely absurd that we would do that [to the military] and not deal with members of Congress,” Lankford said. “Why would we dare ask retired members of the military, who have been there for 20 years, to take a hit we’re not willing to take?”
Lankford said the plan to combine DOD and VA drug purchases has been around for years, but no one has made it happen. He said it would have been “real easy” to cut $6 billion from something like Obamacare, but it would have no chance of passing both houses of Congress. Simply adding to the deficit was not an option.
“The key thing was not to go find a partisan pay-for that I know Democrats would never support,” he said. “We need Democratic support in the House and Senate.”
Lankford said the response to his bill has been positive. He is looking for someone to file companion legislation in the Senate and hopes to get something passed in January.
“Congress has a very short memory,” he said. “If we don’t take it on soon, it won’t happen until late 2015 when [the cut] is about to hit in 2016.”
On Wednesday, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.—minutes before the Senate voted 64-36 to approve the bill—suggested most House members probably didn’t know the extent of the cut to military pensions when they voted for the agreement last week. Lankford said that’s likely true because most lawmakers weren’t able to read the 77-page bill until Wednesday night, and the vote took place on Thursday. He said a lot of questions were “still spinning around” and “many of those answers we have since learned were not accurate,” including the assurance that disabled veterans would be exempt from the cut.
According to Lankford, most members knew the legislation included the reduction to military pensions, but the actual cost estimates did not come out until after the House had voted. “When you say it's a 1 percent decrease, it sounds small,” he said. “When you’re talking about $30,000 and $100,000 per person, that doesn’t seem small anymore.”
Lankford said even if lawmakers had all the information, they were forced to choose between sequestration, including cuts to active duty military personnel, and pay for military retirees. “It was a terrible choice,” he said. “That's a choosing-between-your-children kind of choice.”