With time fast running out for the so-called deficit supercommittee, the mammoth amount of government money spent on the military has become a prime target in Washington. But the main focus isn't on big-ticket weapons projects or expensive wars—it's on retirement benefits for the roughly 17 percent of soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen who have served 20 years or more in uniform. Currently the total cost of their benefits is about $50 billion a year.
Cuts to military pensions are "the kind of thing you have to consider," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in September. When President Obama unveiled his $3 trillion debt reduction plan the same month, it called GIs' benefits "out of line" with private employee retirement plans, saying the system was "designed for a different era of work." When Congress held a hearing on military retirements in October, Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) promoted a cheaper 401(k)-style plan that would slash existing benefits for many troops. "I see nothing wrong with them being able to choose a different retirement plan," he said.
These ideas may sound like a bold new approach in an urgent moment—but in fact, the push for pension cuts and other corporate "reforms" at the Pentagon originates from an obscure advisory panel that has existed for a decade: the Defense Business Board. Its 21 members know little about military affairs, but they are rich in Wall Street experience, including with some of the biggest companies implicated in the 2008 financial meltdown. They are investment bank CEOs and CFOs, outsourcing experts, and layoff specialists who promote a corporate agenda of "behavior change" and "business solutions" in the military bureaucracy. The board proposes not only to slash and privatize military pensions, but also to have the Pentagon invest in oil futures, boost pay for its executives and political appointees, and make it easier for them to fire rank-and-file employees while scaling back those workers' collective-bargaining rights.
Indeed, "this sounds like what's being done now around the country with the public unions," affirms Charles Tiefer, a University of Baltimore law professor and defense contracting watchdog who's testified to Congress about the board's recommendations. The board was launched in 2001 by then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who famously wanted to downsize the military and corporatize its management system. The essential reason it exists, Tiefer says, is so that "a pro-business attitude—especially on personnel issues—remains intact" inside the Pentagon.
While the board's ideas have enjoyed support on Capitol Hill over the years, it has made only a modest impact on policy. Now, the board's proposals—which they say represent "a culture of savings"—are gaining currency as politicians look to cut federal spending any way they can.
When the federal debt ceiling crisis was escalating in July, a report (PDF) from the board argued that paying soldiers and their families for 60 years after 20 years of service was "unsustainable," adding, "The 'Military Retirement' sacred cow is increasingly unaffordable." The board called for scrapping the system in favor of a mandatory 401(k)-style account whose savings could "be invested in higher yielding equities and bonds."
Over the years, the board has recommended a series of "cost-saving" measures that would channel large amounts of money to private-sector businesses.
The board's proposal would set aside 16.5 percent of a troop's base salary in a savings account to be invested in the markets. Assuming a modest annual return—hardly a safe assumption these days—the plan would still provide retired soldiers with far less money than what they are entitled to now. Critics say the proposal would also make it harder for the military to retain its most senior, most knowledgeable members. As Joe Davis, public affairs director for Veterans of Foreign Wars, put it in August: "Where will our future military leaders come from if people leave the service early because they're losing retirement money?"
It's a plan that even Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), chairman of the House subcommittee on military personnel (who's known for shouting "You lie!" at President Obama during his 2009 health care address to Congress), has called "radical…a very controversial proposal with immediate negative consequences for morale and combat readiness."
The head of the Defense Business Board's pensions task force, Richard Spencer, served as a Marine aviator in the 1970s. But more recently, he was the CFO of a web-based commodities and derivatives exchange that is under investigation in Europe for its trading in credit default swaps just before financial markets imploded in 2008. Prior to that job, Spencer worked "on Wall Street for 15 years where his responsibilities centered on investment banking services focusing on strategic advisory services and capital markets underwriting," according to his current biography on the Defense Business Board's website.
A cached version of Spencer's bio identifies the firms where he previously served: Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns, and Merrill Lynch, three of the biggest Wall Street banks involved in the housing and credit collapse. Joining him in the board's vote to gut military pensions were the managing director of Accenture's defense industry portfolio; the chairman of HR consultant Convergys, "a leading outsourcing company"; the CEO of the Bank of Virginia; several high-profile investment bankers; and two Sears executives.
Over the years, the board has recommended a series of "cost-saving" measures that would channel large amounts of money to private-sector businesses. Its members have consistently advocated for the Pentagon to engage in fuel hedging—investing in oil futures to lock in a supposedly low cost for their long-term fuel needs. The board's fuel-hedging push was led by member Denis Bovin, who was a top investment banker for Bear Stearns until the firm went bust in late 2008. After consulting with energy giants BP and Shell, among others, Bovin's team concluded that the Department of Defense should invest based on rising oil prices, even while he conceded that "as a whole, DoD is not highly exposed to fuel price volatility." Such deals, he noted, would incur investment transaction costs of "$10 to $250 million per year." Even though no federal agency currently engages in fuel hedging, the board tasked Bovin with another study on oil futures last January.