Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., expresses her opposition to proposed COLA cuts for military retirees at a Dec. 17 press conference in Washington. Standing behind her is American Legion Legislative Director Louis Celli.

Senate on verge of approving COLA reductions

The American Legion joined several members of Congress and other veterans service organizations on Dec. 17 to express its strenuous opposition to a measure that would cut benefits for military retirees by $6.3 billion.

The proposal, included in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 passed last week by the House, would reduce cost-of-living retirement benefits for veterans by 1 percent per year until they reached the age of 62. American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said the cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) decrease would be disrespectful to America’s men and women "who have devoted their careers at great personal cost to the safety and welfare of our nation.

"The American Legion is pleased that Congress has reached an agreement that should prevent another government shutdown. However, we are deeply disappointed that military retirees were singled out to make up the shortfalls in the DoD budget. After fulfilling military careers, with the understanding that an annual cost-of-living adjustment would be tied to inflation, that pact has been reduced."

At the Dec. 17 press conference, three senators urged their colleagues to use alternative savings to replace the provision to reduce COLA for current and future military retirees: Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

The American Legion’s legislative staff in Washington has been working to persuade Congress to get the COLA provision excised from the budget bill. Louis Celli, the Legion’s legislative director, said that a letter signed by Dellinger was hand-delivered on Dec. 16 to every Senate office.

"Overwhelmingly, Senate staff members said they had no idea that the COLA provision was going to be included in the bill," Celli said, "and that their bosses hate the provision. This sentiment was unanimous across both sides of the aisle."

In his letter, Dellinger asked the senators to vote against the budget bill, "that imposes a tax on military retirees by reducing the annual cost-of-living adjustments for current active-duty servicemembers and military retirees under age 62." The bill "unfairly singles out and targets current military servicemembers and retirees at a far greater and direct out-of-pocket expense by as much as $120,000 in some cases and even more in others."

Dellinger cited the Legion’s resolution, "Support for Military Quality of Life Standards," passed at its national convention in August. The resolution opposes "any changes to the military retirement system, whether prospective or retroactive, that would violate contracts made with military retirees and that would undermine morale and readiness...."

"For The American Legion, this is not a fiscal matter," Dellinger wrote, "it is a direct attack on our military veterans and their families. After serving their country, many in harm’s way, these same servicemembers and military retirees, and their survivors and families, should not now be asked to balance the nation’s books by forfeiting their retired pay."

Ayotte revealed during the press conference that she has documented evidence that the COLA provision would not only affect retirees with 20-plus years of military service, but it would also affect America’s medically retired veterans.

Celli said that more than 900,000 of the country’s 1.9 million military retirees would be affected by the COLA provision. He said the Legion is concerned that, if the measure is passed now and repealed later, the veterans community still might suffer from other pay-go offsets that would replace the COLA cuts.

"Military retirees are the only group being asked to come out of pocket in attempt to balance America’s budget in this bill," Celli said. "Other requirements placed on federal employees that call for increased contributions to their federal retirement plans will ultimately grow interest and increase their benefits – not so with the reduction in COLA benefits. This is a military retiree tax levied on one of the smallest, and in the case of disabled retirees, most-injured veteran populations."

Last May, The American Legion passed a resolution at its Spring Meetings that opposed any lowering of COLA adjustments for military retirees and veterans.

In a letter to their Senate colleagues, Ayotte, Graham and Wicker wrote that, "As a matter of principle, we do not believe it is right to ask our veterans to sacrifice again for our country when we have not had the courage to address the primary long-term drivers of our debt."

The Senate voted to end debate on the budget bill by a 67-33 vote and is soon expected to take a final floor vote.