From the moment Congress passed the Ryan-Murray Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013—actually, even before it was passed—legislators from both parties were in an uproar about the legislation’s modest cut to military pensions. Contemporaneous news accounts immediately predicted the provision would be repealed, and indeed, the House passed a bill Tuesday, 326-90, repealing the military pension changes and offsetting the cost by extending sequestration. The Senate appears set to pass the House bill as early as Wednesday afternoon.
But virtually invisible from this debate have been the pension cuts to civilian federal workers. The Ryan-Murray bill didn’t just cut $6.3 billion from military pensions, but also found $6.3 billion in savings in the pensions of new federal civilian workers.
There has been nary a peep about these cuts in the Washington debate, and they aren’t likely to be reversed any time soon. In small part, this may be because the pension changes for civilian federal employees only affect new hires, while the military changes apply to current retirees and active duty troops soon to retire. In other words, there was more of an active, organized constituency of people that would be affected almost immediately.
But the repeal of only the military pension cuts violates the basic spirit of the Murray-Ryan agreement, which was to treat defense and non-defense spending equally. Paul Ryan specifically applied this principle to the pension changes during a December press conference announcing the legislation. “We also believe it’s important that military families as well as non-military families are treated equally and fair,” he said.
The most important context here, however, is the serious economic damage that has already been visited on federal workers by both Democrats and Republicans over the past several years. Federal civilian workers endured a multi-year wage freeze, initiated by President Obama, that began in 2010 and just ended earlier this year. They also were subjected to furloughs and work disruptions thanks to both sequestration and the government shutdown in October.
These disruptions were serious matters for federal employees—84 percent of them said the shutdown alone caused them to cut back spending on “necessities,” according to the National Treasury Employees Union, while 48 percent said they were delaying medical treatment to save money. Crucially, 67 percent said they would discourage others from working for the federal government, which could present serious challenges to future recruitment of talented people to the federal workforce.
In total, this means that federal workers—who represent less than one percent of the total population—have contributed close to $140 billion to deficit reduction. Advocates for these workers, both inside and outside Congress, are incensed. In fact, federal workers rallied outside the Capitol this week and demanded an end to their punching-bag status. “We’ve got to get Congress to understand that federal employees have given enough,” Everett Kelley, American Federation for Government Employees vice president for the Southeast region told the crowd, according to the Washington Post. AFGE's president, J. David Cox, put it a little more directly: "We ain't taking crap from nobody no more." The NTUE told The Nation it will work to overturn the pension cuts for new civilian employees.
But these voices are barely being heard in the broader deficit debate in Washington. The military pension cuts, and those cuts alone, are about to be swiftly and uncontroversially restored. And maybe they should be—to many people, it rightfully seems perverse for the country to launch two wars without paying for them, and then ask the people who served in those wars to help pick up the tab via their pensions. But why should a veteran’s pension be any more sacred than the pensions of federal workers who are helping to clean up pollution, prosecute criminals, predict tornadoes or research cancer?
This whole drama underscores, yet again, a truly problematic political trend. It’s long been obvious that deficit hawks are much less interested in deficit reduction per se, and much more interested in enacting their particular priorities with deficit reduction as the window dressing. (Think, for example, of the GOP bellowing about the deficit but refusing to raise a penny of new revenue.) Too often, “deficit reduction” simply becomes a meat axe that hacks away at government services for those with the least powerful voices in Washington.
The debate this year in Washington has underscored this problem again and again. The farm bill preserved rich subsidies for agribusiness while cutting food stamps. Now, Congress will restore the military pension cuts while ignoring the equally damaging cuts to civilian workers, who are much more easily maligned in the public debate.
And note: the extension of long-term jobless benefits for three months, which was repeatedly rejected in the Senate, coincidentally carried almost the exact same price tag as restoring the military pension cuts. But based on the way this Congress operates, don't expect three-to-one votes to help the jobless anytime soon.