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Even military pay is a partisan proposition

By DAVID S. BRODER, Washington Post Writers Group
Published May 27, 2007


WASHINGTON - On this Memorial Day weekend when Americans pause to think about their debt to the men and women who fight our wars, a battle of a different kind is going on - a struggle between the White House and Congress over pay for the armed forces.

The difference seems small. President Bush proposed a 3 percent, across-the-board increase for all ranks. The House has passed a 3.5 percent increase, and the Senate, also under Democratic control, seems inclined to go along with the higher figure.

In a May 16 memo outlining a series of objections to the House version of the defense authorization bill, the White House Office of Management and Budget termed the 3.5 percent increase "unnecessary." It said that, "when combined with the overall military benefit package, the president's proposal provides a good quality of life for service members and their families."

That came as news to Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, a freshman Democrat from New Hampshire. She told her colleagues in the House that when her husband was an Army officer during the Vietnam War, "I was a military spouse, and I lived on military pay. It is very difficult to do that. But we do that with honor and with gratitude for the chance to serve this country."

But Shea-Porter said she had to wonder at the values of a president who supports billions of dollars in tax cuts but balks at adequately raising the pay of the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen. "How much does this really mean?" she asked. Not that much for many in the ranks. "For an E-4 a corporal it means $200 a year. $200 a year!"

The White House does not see it as Shea-Porter does. A spokesman for the president told me that military pay has increased 28 percent since 2000 - more than in a comparable period during the Clinton presidency.

Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who is spearheading the fight for the higher figure on his side of the Capitol, pointed out in an interview that Congress in 1999 established the principle that military pay should increase each year by one-half of one percent above the Employment Cost Index - a measure of civilian pay standards. But the administration says that requirement expired two years ago, and since then, Kerry said, that standard has not been met; last year, the raise was only 2.2 percent, the lowest since 1994. The administration says the long-term pay goal has been met; Kerry insists a catch-up raise is still needed.

The fight, like so many others in Washington, has become partisan, with such high-profile Democrats as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Rahm Emanuel joining Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate. Their statements are plainly designed to carry the message that Democrats care more about the well-being of the troops than do their Republican rivals - a counter to the GOP's traditional affinity for the military.

"Whatever we offered, the Democrats would go higher, " the White House spokesman said. He also pointed to the cost of the additional half-percent increase - $265-million next year, and $7.3-billion during the following five. Those are significant sums, but a tiny percentage of the military budget.

The other side of the story is best told in the words of an anonymous service member who recently sent the Military Times readers' forum the following message:

"If there is someone in the administration that feels that we, the hard-working American soldiers, don't need additional pay raises, then maybe they should get from behind their desk and pick up a gun and vest and go stand guard at the entry control points in Iraq. And while they are out there, let's take away their six-figure income and give them $3.50 per day on top of anywhere from $15K-$45K per year.

"For all that we give to keep our country safe, the administration should at least want to help us eliminate any burden we may have financially. No, I'm not saying make us rich, and no one who enters the armed services expects to ever be rich. But we don't expect to have to take out loans just to put food on the table for our families either."

Whatever Congress finally decides to pay the men and women in uniform, we owe them that much - and more.

David Broder's e-mail address is davidbroder@washpost.com.

&#169 2007, Washington Post Writers Group