That isn’t something one hears every day, but it comes at the end of a long string of years where Congress engaged in one-upsmanship on fidelity to the American fighting man and woman through pay raises. Both Democrats and Republicans laid claim to the “support the troops” mantra by offering bigger and bigger raises. It’s as politically safe as, say, waving the flag — as long as you’re not in Morgan Hill, California. Now the Pentagon has told Congress to stop issuing the pay raises and start working on the high costs of health insurance for the military:
The Pentagon, not usually known for its frugality, is pleading with Congress to stop spending so much money on the troops.
Through nine years of war, service members have seen a healthy rise in pay and benefits, with most of them now better compensated than workers in the private sector with similar experience and education levels.
Congress has been so determined to take care of troops and their families that for several years running it has overruled the Pentagon and mandated more-generous pay raises than requested by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. It has also rejected attempts by the Pentagon to slow soaring health-care costs — which Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said are “eating us alive” — by raising co-pays or premiums.
Now, Pentagon officials see fiscal calamity.
In the midst of two long-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense officials are increasingly worried that the government’s generosity is unsustainable and that it will leave them with less money to buy weapons and take care of equipment.
To some extent, we’re still paying for the sense of national guilt over the way returning Vietnam veterans were treated, and in this sense, paying literally. The undeserved scorn and shunning they received still weighs on the national conscience, so much so that the Vietnam-era service of the man who spotted the Times Square bomb has gotten repeated and significant play in media reports. In order to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself, we have arguably gone overboard in an attempt to assuage the regrets of more than a generation.
I say arguably because we haven’t really asked the right question: what exactly is the correct relationship between military and private-sector compensation? Should it achieve parity? More? Less? Most private-sector companies don’t ask their employees to be prepared to die to defend their profit-and-loss statements, the dark fantasies of the anti-corporate Left notwithstanding. Private-sector relationships are usually at-will, meaning either party can end the relationship at any time. Men and women in the military don’t have that option, being locked into Uncle Sam’s employ until their enlistment expires. As an issue, having better compensation in the military than in the private sector in and of itself seems rather minor, and perhaps more of a feature than a bug.
The issue of fiscal responsibility, though, is obvious and critical. The Pentagon needs to innovate in weapons design and production while at the same time maintaining appropriate levels of forces to support the defense and foreign policies of the United States. If those policies are critical and necessary, then Congress needs to allocate appropriate levels of funding to support them. If not, then we need to rethink those policies to better fit our budget. The Pentagon itself needs to police its own procurement practices to ensure that we aren’t wasting money on abuse and fraud. Congress is responsible for most, if not all, of these issues and needs to focus its efforts on achieving the best results while applying fiscal restraint and accountability.
However, since Congress refuses to apply those to itself, let alone the Pentagon, I’d assume that they will comply with the Pentagon’s request and roll back some of the pay increases in the short term.