Another day, another Washington commission

April 1, 2013

“We’ve got to change, at some level, our compensation structure.”

That’s Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who, along with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, was speaking about the military’s budget challenges at a Pentagon news conference Thursday.

Dempsey mentioned reform of military pay and benefits at the end of a list he described as “unpopular but unavoidable institutional reforms that will be necessary.”

Other items: “Excess equipment . . . excess facilities . . . how we buy weapons and services . . . redundancy [among the services].”

Without some basic change in U.S. politics, I don’t believe Congress and the White House will agree on solutions that would reform anything on Dempsey’s list.

The country can’t afford to continue kicking tough decisions down the road, but Congress always seems to find a way.

Take the compensation issue as an example. Fourteen months ago, discussing the rising cost for personnel during a briefing on the fiscal 2013 budget, Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale said, “It’s up 90 percent since 2001 — that’s the pay and benefits — and makes up about a third of our budget.”

What did Congress do? It prohibited almost all of the White House’s budget requests to modestly raise health-care fees for working retirees as a way to reduce the growth of military health care. Instead, lawmakers agreed that a review of military compensation was needed.

Setting up a commission to study a problem for a year or two has become standard procedure in Washington, a way to avoid taking tough steps that might cost legislators some votes.

Enter the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, set up in the fiscal 2013 Defense Authorization Act signed by President Obama on Jan. 2.

The law specified there are to be nine members. The Senate majority and minority leaders each appoint two, as do the speaker and House minority leader. All are to do so in consultation with chairmen and ranking minority members of the Armed Services committees.

Obama is to pick one member and appoint as chairman a commissioner who “has expertise in the military compensation and retirement systems.”

To head off conflicts, the law forbids membership to anyone “who, within the preceding year, has been employed by a veterans service organization or military-related advocacy group or association.”

The law even specified the expertise and experience to be considered, including familiarity with civilian and military compensation and retirement programs; active and reserve service, both enlisted and officer; and “experience as a spouse of a member of the uniformed services.”

Since many such panels drag on for years, Congress set a firm schedule.

●The commission was to be established on “the first day of the first month beginning on or after the date of the enactment of this Act,” the law says. Members have to be appointed “not later than four months after the commission establishment date.”

●“Not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act,” the General Services Administration is to provide the panel with office space. The defense bill authorized that up to $10 million from fiscal 2013 appropriations “shall be made available to the Commission to carry out its duties.”

●It is to meet “not later than 30 days after” all members are appointed.

●Within five months of the panel’s establishment, Obama “shall establish and transmit to the commission and Congress principles for modernizing the military compensation and retirement systems.”

●Within four months after Obama sets out those principles, Hagel is to provide the panel and Congress with recommendations for updating the pay and retirement systems. Over the next six months, the commission is to hold public and private hearings on Hagel’s proposals.

●In the end, the commission is to write a report of its findings and recommendations, including “legislative language” to implement them. However, the recommendations must have the approval of five members before being sent to the president.

●Obama will then have 60 days to approve the panel proposals. If he disapproves, he can send them back with proposed changes. The panel then has a month to make revisions and return them to the president.

If Obama ultimately approves the recommendations, they go to Congress. Regardless, the panel goes out of business 30 days after the president makes his final decision on recommendations.

The panel must finish its work 26 months after establishment.

So what odds would you give that this commission will produce legislation with any possibility to pass the House and Senate two years from now, even if it rationally reduces growth in personnel costs?

First, the law states that any changes can affect pay and benefits only for future military personnel (those joining after Jan. 2., 2013) and some current retirees with regard to health-care costs. More important, the commission’s recommendations still must go through the traditional House and Senate process, including hearings. That means lobbyists for all groups will have a shot at changing the proposals.

With lobbyists protecting the super-rich and big corporations from increased taxes and upper- and middle-income people fighting off means-testing or higher age limits for Medicare and Social Security, why shouldn’t the military try to hold on to all its benefits?

The original idea for this legislation required Congress to have an up-or-down vote on the panel’s recommendations — no amendments and a guaranteed vote. But that idea was dropped.

Commission members may ultimately spend two years working on this issue and have it all come to naught.

The unfortunate truth is that this Congress may be as cautious as the one that set up the panel in the first place.

I so hope I’m wrong.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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