October 18, 2013
Over the past several months, the Pentagon has adopted a new budget-cutting catch phrase: “Slow the growth.”
Don’t sugarcoat it. Call it what it is — extended pay caps.
On his recent trip to South Korea, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey spoke before a U.S. Forces Korea town hall meeting and said when it comes to pay and benefits, “… we have to slow the growth.”
In September, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James Winnefeld spoke before the Air Force Association conference about slowing the growth, saying, “While everyone here would agree that our magnificent men and women in uniform deserve more than the average bear, we simply cannot sustain our recent growth trajectory in pay and benefits and expect to preserve a properly sized, trained, and equipped force.”
Also that month, Under Secretary of Defense Robert Hale, the Pentagon’s comptroller, bluntly laid out harsh budget cut plans before members of the Reserve Forces Policy Board, citing what lies ahead based on continuing the devastating and harmful effects of sequestration.
During this discussion, Hale used the same catchy phrase when speaking about proposals to limit future pay raises, saying, “As we look out right now — even in a period when unemployment improves — it appears to us that our compensation package is sufficient to let us to do that and we could slow the growth ... not cut pay, but slow the growth.”
When the Pentagon submitted the FY 2014 budget in April, the submission included the following statement:
- If we do not slow the growth in military compensation, the DoD will have to make additional force structure reductions, which would harm military capability and undermine the national security strategy, or make further cuts to funds for training and equipping our forces resulting in a “hollow-force” unable to win wars and minimize casualties. As one Marine in Afghanistan put it — “the best quality of life is coming home alive.”
Unfortunately, this statement pits weapons systems against the very men and women who operate them, as if the weapon system will save readiness. What ensures that our men and women in uniform come home safely is the experienced, mid-level NCO or officer. A compensation package that keeps pay compatible with the private sector is needed to sustain that very weapon system.
What does “slow the growth” mean? Well, from the Pentagon’s perspective, they still are providing pay raises — so you should be quiet and happy.
Yet, from MOAA’s perspective, they are failing to sustain military pay with that of private-sector pay — capping your pay — and failing to learn from hard lessons of the past by proposing a raise required by law to keep up with the average American’s pay.
Pay Growth Since 2000 Argument
The Pentagon and think tanks continue to narrowly look backwards at pay growth since 2000, insisting compensation and health care costs are growing at rates that, as Dempsey said, “… are unsustainable to the all-volunteer force.”
It’s important to put the pay-growth-since-2000 argument into perspective and understand why military pay has risen greater than that of the average Americans pay between 2000 and 2010.
In 1999, the military pay gap (the comparability of military pay with that of the private sector) had grown to a 13.5-percent difference.
As you can see in the chart, Congress (with the full support of the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs in 2000-2005) worked diligently for the a 10-year period to fix the 13.5-percent pay gap (and the resulting retention problems) caused by repeatedly capping military raises below private-sector pay growth in the 1980s and ’90s.
The pay-growth argument focuses solely on the 2000-2010 period and conveniently forgets the dismal recruiting and retention environment of the late 1990s. And what’s worse is think tanks and the Pentagon use the growth factor over the past decade (one that exceeded private-sector pay by 11.4 percent) to forecast growth over the next decade and beyond — an outright exaggerated assumption for determining future pay growth.
A more appropriate planning factor, now that military pay has essentially met pay parity, would be one that matches private-sector pay, not exceeds it.
History’s Hard-Learned Lessons
Won’t the Pentagon learn from our past? We’ve been down this road multiple times before and always with disastrous retention and readiness results. History shows once pay caps start, they’re continued until they undermine retention and readiness.
And now is no exception. During a press conference in July, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel outlined various options being studied as a result of the Strategic Choices and Management Review to include one option to continue “to limit military pay raises” — potentially for the next nine years of sequestration.
Now that we basically achieved pay parity, the Pentagon wants to undo all the hard work of the past decade — not just for one year but for several years.
Comparability only works if it’s sustained through both good and bad budget times.
MOAA understands the difficulty sequestration places on the Pentagon, but it’s simply appalling defense leaders are turning a blind eye to the past pay caps and pushing for caps now.
Our men and women in uniform have voluntarily answered the nation’s call and have persevered through unprecedented demands and sacrifices, especially over the past 12 years.
If that’s not enough, the Pentagon — with the support of the Joint Chiefs — and the administration have proposed a 1-percent pay cap for currently serving members for FY 2014 instead of a 1.8-percent raise required by law to keep up with the average American’s pay.
But most troubling is that when addressing compensation last month, Hale said, “I think we will go after military compensation aggressively.”
Not “study” or “review” but aggressively go after military compensation.
This kind of language demonstrates a gross insensitivity to the terrible trials military people have been put through by these same military and defense leaders — almost as if the past 12 years never happened.
We demand unlimited loyalty and sacrifice from the troops, and instead of having their leaders return it in-kind, they now are targets for savings — as if the all-volunteer force is some kind of liability.
The bottom line: “Slow the growth” is an attempt to divert your attention to what is simply a military pay cap — a cap that could last several years. Leaders need to learn from the past and keep military pay on par with that of the private sector.