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Lindsay Graham and Kelly Ayotte Pander on the Military Budget. Even John McCain Pushes Back.

Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

There are some tentatively hopeful noises in Washington about people coming to their senses and deciding to get things done. The odds of this are admittedly scant, but we can take comfort in at least one real step forward today: Official Washington called out some particularly blatant pandering toward the military.

Generally speaking, invoking our troops to advance one’s pet cause of the moment is about as risk-free as telling an anecdote about one’s dear grandmother. Which is perhaps what New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, a first-term Republican, was banking on yesterday when she decided to make a show of opposing the new bipartisan budget agreement on the grounds that it was trimming $6 billion over 10 years from some military pensions (a reduction of cost of living increases for military retirees that will apply only while they are still of working age—that is, when many of them are making a very good living working for military contractors or starting contracting firms of their own with the benefits of set-aside provisions to benefit veterans. The Washington Post reports that House budget aides estimate the move would "reduce lifetime retirement pay by about 6 percent for a man who enlisted at age 18 and retired at age 38 as a sergeant first class in the Army—leaving him with about $1.626 million in lifetime retirement pay instead of $1.734 million.")

Organizing a press conference with veterans groups, Ayotte called the pension reduction a “dealbreaker” and proclaimed: “We could quickly find $6 billion that would not be taken from the backs of our men and women in uniform.” She was joined in this push by, among others, fellow Republicans Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who declared: “Of all the people we could’ve picked on to screw, how could we have arrived here?”

But then something interesting happened: Just minutes after the press conference, the senators were called out on the Senate floor by none other than John McCain. The Arizona Republican is as pro-military as they come and is famously close with both Graham (his “Tonto,” writes Mark Leibovich in a new profile of McCain) and Ayotte (“one of his new favorites,” notes Leibovich). Yet there was McCain, pushing back in heated fashion on the Senate floor, noting that the pension reform had been sought by the military brass as a way to get the Pentagon’s ballooning personnel costs under control:

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the few senators who served in the military, dismissed the outcry, noting that even high-ranking Pentagon officials have acknowledged the need to rein in the cost of military benefits, from pensions awarded after only 20 years of service to the military health program known as TriCare.

“We have to be careful, because this is an all-volunteer force,” he said. “But when people say, ‘Well, they joined up because of TriCare’ — I do not know of a single 18-year-old, including my own son, who joined the Marines at 18. I said, ‘Jimmy, do you to this day know what TriCare is?’ And he said, ‘Hell, no, Dad. What is TriCare?’”

And in today’s papers, the Beltway’s scorekeepers came down pretty hard on Ayotte et al for the grandstanding. Dana Milbank wrote:

They couldn’t credibly say the deal had too much spending: It cut the deficit and didn’t raise taxes. And they couldn’t say it hurt the military: It added $22 billion to the Pentagon budget for 2014. Instead, they singled out a small provision — a $6 billion cut to military pensions over 10 years — and proclaimed it an all-out assault on our brave men and women in uniform.

Their outrage was suspicious. The cut they condemned is a 1-percentage-point reduction in cost-of-living increases for military pensions for those who retire young, often in their 40s and usually to begin second careers. And the need to restrain military benefits is undisputed: Overall payments to military retirees and survivors were $52 billion last year, and personnel costs, now half of the Pentagon’s budget, will soon crowd out everything else if current trends persist….

Ayotte alleged that a sergeant first class retiring at age 40 with 20 years of service would lose nearly $72,000. She also claimed, even though the cuts are for regular pensions, that those on disability pensions would be hurt by the deal. Graham, in his turn at the microphones, predicted that outrage would have been greater if the agreement cut cost-of-living increases for Social Security retirees. But military pensioners — about 17 percent of personnel serve long enough to qualify — also get Social Security benefits. And though they deservedly receive better benefits than civilians, the generous payouts are causing budgetary havoc for the armed forces.

And Ruth Marcus piled on:

The provision would reduce cost-of-living adjustments for working-age retirees — service members become eligible for pensions after 20 years, and on average begin collecting by age 42. At age 62, veterans would receive the full cost-of-living adjustments; until then, they would receive smaller adjustments, but not zero. This is hardly paying for spending “on the backs of our . . . military retirees.”

There is an interesting personal political dynamic at play here: Ayotte was very adept early in her Senate tenure at walking the party line on most issues while managing, through the very occasional divergence and her youthful demeanor, to maintain the barest aura of New Hampshire independence and moderation about her. But there’ve been occasions in the past year where she has risked overdoing the party-line thing—there was her opposition to universal background checks for gun purchases (which also put her at odds with McCain and earned her a backlash back home) and now there’s this bout of military pandering so transparent that it earned her a reprimand both from McCain and some of the Beltway scribes who’ve until now been willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. It’s hard not to speculate at Ayotte’s motivation in pushing as close to the conservative line as she has—she was mentioned often as vice presidential material last year and will be high on the list for any of the many Republican men running for president next time.

More broadly, though, this episode ought to be heartening to Chuck Hagel and everyone else now focused on reining in personnel costs that are increasingly gobbling up our defense budget. The pander card was played, and for once, it was laughed off of the table.