Protests over planned cost-of-living (COL) cutbacks in federal-military pensions have reached such proportions that the White House now uses a form letter to answer angry civil servants, career soldiers and bitter U.S. retirees.
Congressional budget-blancers and the president want to repeal the law that now gives government retirees inflation adjustments every six months. They would replace it with a single COL raise each year.
At the current rate of inflation the switch to a single COL adjustment each year would cost the typical retiree more than $1 a day in lost or delayed income.
On April 13, this column asked government workers, the military and retirees if they felt strongly enough over the issue to vote against the president.
As of June 6 a total of 52,400 cards, letters and telegrams had come into this office on the subject. Nine out of 10 said they would vote against the president and their senator and representative if they support the COL change. People talked about "breach of contract" and argued that retirees are the victims of inflation, not the cause of it.
Politicians are taking note of the unrest out there. There are around 6 million active duty personnel directly involved, plus about 2 million retirees and survivors. In some parts of the country that group makes up the majority voting bloc, and members of Congress in those districts are weighing their jobs against the political value of supporting a "balanced" budget that chops the COL.
Although President Carter didn't write a column asking people for their views, he has been getting lots of letters anyway. So many in fact that the White House was forced to develop a preprinted letter such as is normally used to answer questions or complaints about "major" issues, like inflation, unemployment or foreign policy.
The seven-paragraph reply, "signed" by presidential correspondence chief Daniel M. Chew, says the president "appreciates having the benefit of your views, and he is sympathetic to the difficulties experienced by persons who must live on fixed incomes, despite inflation."
However, the letter asks people to take the big-picture look at the problem of inflation, arguing that cutbackse such as the COL reduction will make life better for all.
The once-a-year COL proposed for federal and military personnel is, the letter says, "a matter of equity since Social Security recipients and others receive COL raises only once a year."
The letter closes with thanks for "sharing your concerns with the president.
I can assure you that the president has weighed his budget proposals with a view toward ensuring fairness in relation to all groups."
That is one note from the White House most people aren't framing. Federal workers point out that their retirement system is nothing like Social Security. It is staff retirement program which they pay more for, and whose benefits are -- unlike Social Security -- taxable.
If the single COL becomes law, federal workers fear the next step -- probably coming next year -- will be to give retirees less than full COL raises in the future.
Two weeks ago the drive to eliminate the two COL raises was proceeding smoothly. But since then Congress has had second thoughts about the balanced budget, and the political ramifications of it. There is a growing possibility that Congress will be unable -- or unwilling -- to make the COL and other cuts before it adjourns. If that happens, this will be one time that the normally docile bureaucracy has managed to focus its voter power and pressure on a major political issue.