National Guard — August 2012
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Ripped In Half
William Matthews

Guard reaction to a proposal to cut weekend drill pay has been swift, overwhelmingly negative and duly noted on Capitol Hill

A PLAN THAT WOULD cut National Guard and Reserve drill pay in half hasn’t been sent to Capitol Hill yet, but already it’s in political trouble.

By the middle of last month, Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., a Mississippi Army National Guardsman and member of the House Armed Services Committee, had already lined up more than two dozen House colleagues to oppose it.

“The answer is a flat no,” he says when asked whether Congress might approve such a cut.

A senior Senate defense policy aide says that “cutting military pay is never popular,” and at this point, it’s probably too late in the legislative process to change reserve pay before 2014.

Former Assistant Defense Secretary Larry Korb says getting congressional approval for a pay cut would be “almost impossible” this year and questionable after that.

Even one of the plan’s chief proponents, Michael Mattock, concedes, “It’s not going to happen this year.”

The pay cut is part of a 255-page plan released June 21 that proposes a multitude of changes in military pay.

The 11th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation (QRMC) proposes pay changes for troops in critical career fields, new rules for combat pay, and possible changes in pay to wounded troops, caregivers and survivors.

For Guardsmen, in addition to calling for cuts in drill pay, the review proposes some pay increases in the form of incentives, housing and food allowances, reimbursements for expenses such as travel costs, and earlier access to retirement pay.

Taken as a whole, the added benefits would offset the cuts in many cases, says Mattock, an associate economist at the RAND Corporation and a member of the QRMC research staff.

For some, the changes, he says, could even mean higher pay. But Guard advocates are skeptical.

Amid growing pressure to cut defense budgets, any proposal to cut drill pay looks like “an attempt to save money on the backs of the National Guard,” says Pete Duffy, the NGAUS acting legislative director.

And while the proposed pay cut is clear, Duffy says, the proposed incentives to make up some of the difference “are vague.”

NGAUS members have overwhelming echoed Duffy’s sentiment (Chairman’s Message, page 8). Their initial response to a July 5 association alert suggesting they contact Capitol Hill through the Write to Congress feature at nearly crashed the website.

Mattock, who headed a study that guided the proposed reserve pay changes, says the proposals are misunderstood.

“On the whole, the idea was to try to make people better off at the same cost to the government,” he says. “Unfortunately, there have been some people who looked just at the changes in RMC,” or regular military compensation.

But Guard pay, Mattock says, is much more complex than that. The QRMC calls the current reserve pay system “byzantine, complicated, confusing and frustrating.”

It dates back to 1916 when Congress first authorized drill pay. The compensation was first set at about 1. 9 days of base military pay for each of 48 drills. At the time, Guardsmen drilled one evening a week for two to four hours.

In 1920, lawmakers reduced pay to today’s standard of one-day’s pay per drill.

Eventually, four four-hour drills over one weekend a month became the norm. Troops do receive four days of pay for the weekend, but no allowances for housing, food or travel.

But Palazzo and other Guardsmen say they seldom work just eight-hour days during drill weekends. And many say they put in the equivalent of several additional days preparing for drill.

When called up for combat or other active duty, Guardsmen receive regular military compensation, which is one day’s pay for each day on duty.

“What this means,” the QRMC says, “is that reserve members are paid more for a day of weekend training than for a day serving in combat.”

The QRMC recommends substituting one day of regular military pay for each day of service, whether it’s training, combat or other duty. That would “more closely align” reserve pay with active-duty pay, the report says.

It would also mean a pay cut, the QRMC acknowledges. To compensate, it proposes new incentive pays, such as a payment for attending all required training, another for meeting readiness requirements, and others for volunteering for challenging assignments.

The review also calls for a big change in retirement pay. Guardsmen and Reservists would be able to begin collecting retirement pay after completing 20 qualifying years of service and reaching the 30th anniversary of their service start date. That means some could begin receiving retirement pay before reach age 50.

Under the current system, most troops must wait until age 60 to begin collecting retirement pay.

While considering reforms, QRMC participants sought to improve compensation for Guardsmen and Reservists without increasing costs, Mattock says. They concluded that providing earlier access to retirement pay could do that.

Duffy says letting Guardsmen start collecting retirement pay after 30 years “is a great idea,” but the drawback is that they would earn fewer retirement points during drill weekends, thus receive smaller retirement paychecks.

The QRMC says the smaller checks would be made up over time because troops would begin collecting them earlier.

So far, few details of the pay overhaul have been reviewed by lawmakers, the Senate aide says. But what they have seen is not generating enthusiasm.

“Reducing reserve pay and allowing reserve retirement to begin earlier seems starkly out of step with most pension reforms going on in other sectors,” he says. And “lowering the age of retirement eligibility is a questionable long-term savings proposal when people are living longer.

“A pay change that [Guardsmen and Reservists] oppose and that doesn’t save the government money is the worst of all worlds.”

To Korb, who spent five years as assistant defense secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, some reform of reserve pay “makes sense, particularly when we use the Guard as much as we have.”

But “it’s going to be tough,” he says, to push any changes through Congress if the Guard opposes them.

“We saw the power of the Guard lobby” earlier this year when it opposed Air Force plans to retire 139 Guard planes and cut 5,100 airmen in 2013. Amid an outcry by Guard officials and Guard organizations, including NGAUS, Congress blocked the cuts.

So far, no pay change proposals have been sent to Congress, Palazzo says. Pay proposals could be included when the Pentagon proposes its 2014 budget. “We’ll scan it with a fine-tooth comb,” Palazzo says.

Mattock is aware of the challenge the QRMC faces. “Changing reserve pay is not something people are in a rush to do,” he says.

William Matthews is a Springfield, Va.- based freelance writer who specializes in military matters. He can be contacted via