Retired, Disabled Veterans May Not Be Spared COLA Cuts in Budget Deal

Politics — and specifically the politics of the budget in Washington — have long played zero-sum games. Some constituencies “win,” and others do not fare so well. Unfortunately, the latest budget crafted on Capital Hill may deliver a body blow to the nation’s veterans.

It has already been reported that the budget compromise hammered out by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., will result in a 1 percentage point reduction in the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for military retirees under the age of 62.

But the budget strike could cost disabled veterans as well. While disabled veterans were hitherto thought to be exempt from the COLA cuts, the section of the U.S. code now under Congress’s consideration also applies to disabled veterans.

The specific code affected in the Ryan-Murray compromise, 71 U.S.C. Section 1401, deals with the pay of military retirees. The new agreement adds a “consumer price index minus 1 percent” provision that effectively reduces the COLAs of disabled retirees.

Tellingly, a summary on the House Budget Committee website once promised that the amended pay provision “would not affect servicemembers who retired because of disability or injury.” The sentence containing that assurance has now been removed.

Representative Ryan considers the modification justified because, in his opinion, members of the military who retire in their 40s after serving for two decades are young enough to hold a job.

“We give them a slightly smaller adjustment for inflation because they’re still in their working years, and in most cases earning another paycheck,” Ryan explained.

However, in drawing such a conclusion, Ryan is dismissing the difficulties veterans, especially disabled veterans, face in translating their military skills into stateside jobs.

Ryan has also stated that the military retiree provision will not take effect immediately, and that amendments are therefore still possible. Considering the questions that have already been raised on Capital Hill, the blow to disabled veterans may not ultimately stand.

“We’re going to look at the whole benefits issue for veterans,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich. “I can’t obviously make a commitment, but I am committed to reviewing this and looking at the impacts.”

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