Audio of Tuesday’s debate with House Budget Chair Paul Ryan:
Audio of follow-up conversation with senator Lindsey Graham:
Transcript of the conversation with Chairman Ryan:
HH: As I said in the last segment with Senator Rubio, the most disappointing part of Campaign 2012 for me was when Governor Romney gave his acceptance speech and neglected to mention the military. Now that was an oversight. It was a mistake. Now the House GOP is intentionally targeting active duty military for the only cost of living retirement cut in the entire budget deal. Not members of Congress or their staffs, not high level SES employees, not NPR or Amtrak, but the first and only serious cut is active duty military. I have often been proud to be a GOP’er, sometimes embarrassed, but never until today ashamed. And joining me to talk about this is the chairman of the House Budget Committee, Congressman Paul Ryan. Congressman Ryan, I am flabbergasted, shocked and appalled.
PR: Hey, Hugh. Well, let me give you a little backdrop. How about that? First of all, nobody in this country deserves more support, not a single person in this country deserves more support from their fellow citizen, from the taxpayer, than our men and women in uniform, than the people who go fight for our freedoms. I think it’s just, I want to say that to begin with. Here is the background on this problem we have. We have a readiness crisis. I think you know about this. If you think that I wanted to do this or enjoy doing this, that’s not true. Had Mitt and I won that election, this would not be required. This would not be necessary. What do I mean when I say all that? You’ve got three big budget problems staring at the Pentagon right now. You’ve got the Obama budget. It cuts $487 billion dollars from the Pentagon to begin with. That’s point number one. You’ve got the Defense sequester. That cuts another $500 billion dollars on top of the $487 billion dollars. The budget agreement attempts to alleviate some of that sequester cut. It alleviates $31 billion dollars of it. So after the budget agreement, you’ve got the Obama $487 billion dollar cut to the Pentagon, then you’ve got a $469 billion dollar cut with the Defense sequester left intact, hitting the Defense Department. Then the third point is you’ve got pay and benefits, which are growing very, very quickly. It’s a demographic thing that’s just like what’s happening to the rest of the country, that is consuming more and more of the military’s budget. And that is leaving readiness destroyed. We are about to go to a Navy that is smaller than since before World War I, very few of our Army and Marine brigades are combat ready, are getting the training they need. We’re flying old airplanes in our Air Force that need to be replaced, and we’re pushing the replacement of those planes out another five years. I could go on and on and on, only to say that we have a real readiness crisis. And so we were not able to put back into the military budget nearly as much as we wanted to, like what my budget that passed in the House does. And so we’re trying to find a way of saving more money for the military, to keep the savings within the Pentagon’s budget, to try and address this military crisis. As you know, there’s a commission underway to address military pay and benefits. That commission is supposed to report its findings this spring. One of the reasons why we put a two year delay in this law for this particular provision is to give the military, people in Congress on the Defense committees, the Pentagon, time to change this if this commission thinks there is a better way to go. When we took a look at this particular provision, we looked at who can bear the savings more. Do we want to go after people who are 62 and above, you know, Tri-Care benefits? We didn’t want to do that. We took a look at the Bowles-Simpson. Bowles-Simpson does away with the COLA completely. We looked at making sure that military retiree pensions are always superior to their civilian counterparts. As you may know, civilian federal workers have to contribute money toward their pension from their paycheck. The military does not. They don’t have a cost of living increase at all. It’s zero before they reach the age of 62. And as you know, military retirees do. One misnomer I want to clear up is that this does not affect veterans’ benefits. It only affects military retiree benefits, which is 17% of the people who actually serve, just to put it in perspective, not to diminish the point, but to put it in perspective.
HH: Now Mr. Chairman, if I can…
PR: I’ll just finish. I’ll be done in two seconds. What this does is says their cost of living increase is not as fast as an older person when they turn 62. It’s consumer price index minus one percent. When they turn 62, all that money goes back into their pension. Their pension benefit goes back up to reflect what they had lost, and then their pension grows at full CPI after they reach the age of 62. That savings stays with the Pentagon to help us buy more equipment right now to make sure we can address our readiness issue. And it’s delayed for two years that if we think there’s a better way to fix this problem, we’ll do that, and we bought ourselves two years to do that. And that’s what this does.
HH: Mr. Chairman, I reject it entirely, and I want to give you a few points to respond to, and I won’t take as much time as you did. I wanted to be fair to you.
PR: Sure, well, I just wanted to give you the full…
HH: I know, I wanted you to, and I want people to be able to hear it. But it will be utterly and totally rejected, because they are the first to take the whack, they are the only group to take the whack. Some of these men and women, in the thirteen years we have been at war, have been deployed six, seven, eight times, have missed dozens of Christmases and birthdays and birth of their child. And the Congress steps up, the House GOP steps up and says the only group that we are going to force to pay for their own readiness is going to be the active duty military, because I heard you say very clearly, we need to maintain readiness. So in order to get them the jet fuel they need to fly off the carriers, or the bullets they need to train with, or the camouflage they need to move around with at night, we’re going to have to cut their future retirement. This will destroy retention, it will destroy morale, and it is deeply unfair to the American military which has sacrificed more than anyone else. And you guys put them first, and now you’re rushing it through so that the people who are outraged, like me, cannot get on the phones at 202-225-3121 and encourage that the House Republican Caucus absolutely reject this deal. On every level, it is an outrage on what we stand for in the Republican Party, vis-à-vis the military.
PR: Well, I guess my response would be I supported every one of those ten military pay increases that we gave the military since 9/11, since we’ve been at war. I supported creating the G.I. Bill, as did every other Republican around here. And so since they signed up, we did ten pay increases, most of which were above inflation, and we created a new entitlement for them, a G.I. benefit, which I was very much in favor of, helped write. And so since they signed up, we have given them more than what they thought they were going to get when they signed up. That’s point number one. Point number two, in your lead-in, you mentioned this. We’ve frozen our salaries here in Congress for about the last four or five years, in addition to each of us had our own staff budgets. I’ve done that myself here. But Congress froze their salaries. And Congress, years ago, took away the COLA for civilian retirees who retired before the age of 62 so that you still have COLA increases for young…the reason is there’s…a difference is being made for the young retiree, say somebody who retires when they’re 38 versus, say, a 62 year old, is because that person goes out and gets another job, and they have that other job, and then this pension benefit on top of it, which was supplemented with the ten pay increases we’ve done since 9/11, and we still have a COLA increase. Nobody’s pension check goes down under this reform. Now do I want to do this? Did I think this was a great thing to do and what we needed to do? No, of course not. But the problem is, elections have consequences, and we have roughly a trillion dollar cut to our military that should never have occurred in the first place. And we’re trying to learn how to live with that, Hugh.
HH: I’ll be right back with Chairman Paul Ryan of the House Budget Committee as we continue our deep disagreement over this disaster that the GOP is about to embark upon.
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HH: Believe me, I do not like disagreeing with Chairman Paul Ryan like I am, but it has to be said. I’m thinking of the guy who drove me around Kosovo four years ago, six deployments, had lost his job at home after long time away from home. He was a reservist, and he was a master sergeant, and I cannot believe he is first in line to take a hit, Mr. Chairman. And I go back to my key questions, and I want to focus on it. Am I wrong? This is the only category in this budget deal to take a COLA hit, active duty military?
PR: Well, that’s because civilians don’t have a COLA who are young retirees before 62.
HH: But Medicare and Social Security are not on the table, because they’re not part of this deal, but this is the first COLA adjustment of any of the entitlement reforms. This is the first entitlement reform.
PR: Well, it’s in this package. That’s because we’ve done other COLA adjustments before, in other bills.
HH: But in this package, it’s the only one.
PR: That’s correct. That’s correct.
HH: All right, and why the rush, Mr. Chairman, because I think the reason you guys are rushing it through is that, and this is what really outrages me…
PR: This passed a month ago, Hugh.
HH: It passed a month ago, and it there was such an outrage that many head fakes were given that this would be fixed. In fact, six days ago in the Wall Street Journal, a number of Republican senators were quoted as saying this would be fixed. This was sprung on us last night that it wasn’t fixed. I told everyone to hold their fire, Paul Ryan would not let this happen.
PR: Yeah, so to that point, okay, let’s move the conversation to that. What is being fixed in this is to make sure that, which was never intended, that anybody who is disabled, who can’t go out and get that second job, does not have any COLA adjustment. Then, there are bills being introduced to pay for fixing the rest of it. Look, the reason we put a two year delay, this doesn’t kick in until 2016, is to give Congress, the military, the Defense committees, time to figure out perhaps another way. But in the meantime, we just freed up $6 billion dollars for readiness.
HH: Mr. Chairman, I have to reject…
PR: Let me just make one more thing. We have this commission…
HH: There are loans…I get that, but I’ve got to pause. People reject this. You’re holding the military hostage. You’re saying if you can get your act together in two years, we’ll put it back. In the meantime, we’ll pay for readiness.
HH: We have a $17 trillion dollar budget [debt], and you’re taking $6 billion from active duty military. It’s insane.
PR: Hugh, I think President Obama did that when he cut them by $487 billion dollars. I think the Defense sequester does that by cutting it now another $469 billion dollars instead of the $500 billion dollars. We could not give the military the relief that we wanted to, like what my budget does. Our budget represents what we believe. Our budget doesn’t do this COLA. Our budget adds money back to the military and cuts domestic spending and balances the budget and reforms entitlements, and does these things that you were mentioning before.
HH: But Mr. Chairman, are you telling me the Democrats would refuse to put back this COLA if you went to them and you said we’ve changed our mind, we want to do deficit spending and return the COLA? Are you telling me they would say no?
PR: No, I think we will have a chance of doing that. It’s not going to be in this.
HH: Why not? Why not now?
PR: Because they don’t, they’d not come up with the savings to pay for it.
HH: But why not spend…
PR: I don’t know the answer to that.
HH: When we have a $17 trillion dollar [debt]…
PR: I can’t answer that question.
HH: When we have a $17 trillion dollar debt, why would the only $6 billion we refuse to borrow be that which we would borrow for the military?
PR: Because look, I didn’t write this bill that’s coming to the floor tomorrow, so I can’t explain why something is in it or isn’t in it. This wasn’t a bill that I wrote. This is something that the Appropriations Committee wrote.
HH: I know that.
PR: So I’m not allowed to speak to that. Because I wasn’t in the room, I can’t answer the question.
HH: Stop it, though. You can vote against it. You, Paul Ryan, can stop this. Will you?
PR: No, no, I believe that it was, it would be a mistake to have more government shutdowns. And what this bill does is it plows $22 billion dollars right now back into the military that would be…
HH: But you can, you can go out on the floor tonight and say put back the COLA, spend the extra money, spend that much more money.
PR: Which we have plenty of time to do.
HH: You could do that. No, but you could do it tonight. You could stop this.
PR: But you know what I’m going to do tonight, which is actually tomorrow, but what I’m going to do tomorrow is I’m going to vote to put $22 billion dollars back into the Pentagon’s budget from getting cut out.
HH: Mr. Chairman, the audience listening…
PR: So I’ll take that step in the right direction, which is to put $22 billion back into it.
HH: No, but your friends, this is a friendly…
PR: And oh, by the way, I’m going to stop the COLA, the COLA reduction in the increase for the disabled. So those, to me, are prospective, constructive steps in the right direction. Just like I told you, in divided government, you don’t always get what you want.
HH: Mr. Chairman, this is your audience. They like you. They support you. You’ve been on the show a hundred times.
PR: I like you, Hugh.
HH: But the fact of the matter is they’re not buying this.
PR: I got you.
HH: They know that you could stop this, and you’re not stopping it.
PR: We’ve got time to fix this. But here’s the problem, Hugh, I’ve just got to tell you, if we don’t watch it, the Pentagon’s going to become a government benefits agency that fights wars on the side.
HH: That is not 20 year veterans who’ve been deployed six times, seven times.
PR: No, but we need to deal with their…
HH: Do not confuse those issues.
PR: …budget problems. And what this does is it at least triggers that conversation. The commission is giving us their report in the spring about how to try and deal with this side of the Pentagon budget, because in the future, I’m not talking about like right now, I’m talking about in the future, we have serious budget problems with the Pentagon.
HH: You have much worse retention problems, because they’re going to quit on you. You’re going to hollow out the military.
PR: Making them fly F-16s that are 30 years old, shrinking their ships, not giving them training, which is what’s going on right now, is I think the biggest morale killer of all.
HH: There are not going to be anyone to fly the planes, Mr. Chairman. There’s not going to be anyone to fly the planes. And I am amazed that you guys are rushing this through without hearing from the people who elected you, because they will unanimously call you and tell you not to do this. I do, however, deeply appreciate you came on and took the hard questions.
End of interview.