Panel told not to cut vet benefits

Advocates for military retirees and veterans urged a bipartisan commission studying ways to end runaway budget deficits not to lump military-earned benefits in with other entitlements eyed for cost controls.

“There’s a fundamental difference between social insurance programs open to every American and military benefits earned by decades of service and sacrifice,” Steve Strobridge, director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America, told the commission.

Carl Blake, legislative director for Paralyzed Veterans of America, conceded the country “faces a very harsh reality” of rapid federal spending growth that “appears unsustainable. And yet PVA is here today to emphasize why continued growth in federal spending for (veterans) is imperative.”

More than 90 “public comment” witnesses were invited to appear June 30 before the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. They came from a variety of interest groups and think tanks, liberal and conservative. Many were economists and policy experts but private citizens also testified.

Not every witness was keen on maintaining the status quo for military retirees or veterans. Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, in his written statement said “no program should be exempted from new constraints of fiscal discipline, including defense.” He referred to Congressional Budget Office options that included higher “military health care premiums and deductibles” that would save $6 billion to $8 billion annually.

Maya MacGuineas, president of another non-profit, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, endorsed a revised method of calculating cost-of-living adjustments for federal entitlements. The so-called “superlative” Consumer Price Index would end what some economists contend is an upward bias to the current CPI that allows COLAs to exceed annual inflation.

When deficit hawks in Congress last year couldn’t get a bill approved to create by statute a commission to control federal deficits, President Obama created one under an executive order. In February its 18 members were named, including 12 members of Congress. Simpson and Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff to President Clinton, were named co-chairs. A report is due to President Obama by Dec. 1.

Bowles said the commission sought any ideas that might support the president’s goal of ending deficit spending, except for interest payments on the rising national debt, by the year 2015. Meeting that target will require finding $250 billion in deficit savings for just that budget year alone.

No recommended spending cuts or tax increases would occur before fiscal 2012, Bowles said. But solutions must be found and adopted to stem the rising tide of red ink that threatens disaster for future generations.