The Bipartisan Budget Act signed into law by President Obama last December cut military pensions retroactively. People who had served voluntarily for 20/+ years under specific terms had those terms redefined to their detriment without their consent or even a discussion. It was a breach of contract, but more importantly, a breach of faith. It wasn’t a new idea. It was just the most recent instance in a recurring pattern in American politics: we love to fight wars, but we abhor paying for them. As they wind down, false narratives tend to spring up decrying the expenditure required to keep faith with those who did the fighting. These narratives have a rational purpose: to appropriate money away from where it has been rightly committed, so it can be spent on other things — things with political sponsorship. This injures our values, but it’s part of who and what we are politically, so we can’t wish it away. We must confront it.
When senior military leaders made it clear they would not step forward to contend with this latest broken promise, groups of veterans, spouses, families, affiliates, and ordinary Americans (including many who visit this page regularly) sprang into acton. They put their voices together and let Washington know they noticed and didn’t approve. They melted the Capitol switchboard and got thrown into “Twitter jail.” They sent emails and letters, signed petitions, visited their elected representatives, and blanketed social media with a persistent message legislators couldn’t ignore. While retired generals sided with politicians and dismissed veteran concerns, retired senior enlisted leaders pushed back, speaking out against the cuts. Day by day, pressure built behind the idea that something wrong had been done. The heat was dialed up until politicians had to face the reality that they’d underestimated the sensitivity of veterans to feeling as though they were misled or that promises made to them might be rendered cheap in the rush to shovel money from one priority to another in Washington. The political winds shifted. Even the previously silent generals issued a mea culpa. And finally, Washington responded.
Today, by a vote of 95-3, the Senate approved a bill to repeal the pension cut and restore the broken promise. The bill previously passed the House and will now go to the president’s desk, where it will almost certainly be signed into law.
Citizen activism works. Not every time and not always (or even often) in the way we might want . . . but it works, and is worth the effort. It’s one of the things our founders relied upon when they built our government . . . that from time to time, we’d remind our elected representatives that they represent our interests, not those of a narrow subset among us. For me, this past couple of months has been a reminder of the both the strength and fragility of our way of life. Some of our politicians have grown so bold that they brazenly act without warrant in departing from the will of their constituents. But those constituents retain the ultimate say in how we function as a people, and when they exert themselves in unison, they can bring government to heel.
This is a victory for military veterans and those who care about our ability to amass a strong collection of volunteers to defend us into the future. There will be many more fights like this one, but the assumptions governing those fights have been shifted by this victory. The voice raised in this instance will change the calculus of legislators next time around, and budget vultures now understand that veterans and their countrymen will not go quietly in the face of obvious wrong. They expect their country to fix its problems the same way wars get fought: one arduous step at a time, fighting hard to gain and hold ground without doing anything to subvert the larger mission or dishonor the team.
My thanks to those of you who participated directly or indirectly in this effort. Stay loose . . . you’ll be needed again.
By Tony Carr, February 12, 2014