Older military retirees like Marine Corps Master Sgt. Lanny Bauer, 68, of Stockton, Calif., do not begrudge current service members for a string of annual pay raises that have exceeded wage growth in the private sector.
Every dollar they get is deserved and likely is needed to keep quality volunteers in wartime, he says.
But Bauer also sees those active duty pay raises, compared to annual cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees, creating a disparity between annuities paid to members retiring today and folks like him who retired 30 years ago.
“Unless I’m wrong, there’s at least a $500 a month gap right now” between his monthly retired pay and that of an E-8, also with 20 years’ service, who retires under 2008 basic pay scales.
Isn’t it time, Bauer asks, for the government to “re-compute” retired pay of older retirees using more current pay scales?
Associations representing military retirees routinely field questions like this, particularly in years like this one when the active duty raise, at 3.5 percent, was bigger than the cost-of-living adjustment for retirees, which was 2.3 percent.
Indeed over the preceding decade, from 1998 through 2007, raises to basic pay, on which future retired pay is based, have exceeded retiree COLAs for eight of those 10 years. The exceptions were 2006 and 2007 when COLAs were a percentage point higher each year.
Why aren’t advocates for older retirees alarmed by this disparity?
The chief reason is that active duty raises and retiree COLAs serve separate purposes. Annual COLAs, said Steve Strobridge, director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America, are “to maintain the same retired pay purchasing power each member had at retirement.”
They are based on inflation as measured by the government’s Consumer Price Index. Military retirees each year get the same increase as federal civilian retirees, survivors and social security recipients.
Active duty pay raises are tied to private sector wage growth and recently have exceeded that growth to close a military-civilian pay gap. These raises are linked to the government’s Employment Cost Index, which tracks wage growth nationwide. The connection to the ECI, Strobridge said, “is essential to sustain a quality force and to maintain readiness.”
Beginning in the 1920s, and for five decades, retiree raises were tied loosely to active duty pay increases. Then in 1958, with Congress planning to raise active duty pay 10 percent, another retired pay “recomputation” was deemed to be too costly. Retirees saw no pay adjustment again until 1963 when the link was established between retiree COLAs and the CPI.
Since then active duty raises and retirees COLAs have differed, and not always in favor of the active force. In six of 12 years from 1969 and 1980, retirees received two COLAs a year. In some years, they even received a 1-percent “kicker” to compensate for lost purchasing power due to time delays between when inflation was measured and a COLA was paid.
“From the mid-’80s through the mid-’90s,” Strobridge said, “COLAs were generally higher than active duty pay raises,” primarily because the government intentionally capped military raises below the ECI.
Given that history, advocates for retirees know that economic or political change can swing the pendulum of higher pay adjustments back to retirees. It might even happen soon, given trends in fuel and food prices.
But what older retirees have seen since the late-’90s, are COLAs that generally have been smaller than active duty raises, which they see as creating deeper disparities in retired pay based on when a member retires.
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: email@example.com