Senate Pushes Overhaul of Military Promotion System

Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON -- Days after passing a retirement overhaul, Congress is already pressing ahead with another round of potentially historic military personnel reforms for 2016, taking aim this week at promotions and the health care system.

The Senate opened the debate Wednesday by criticizing the military promotion system -- especially among officers -- as outdated and overly focused on schedules compared to merit. A House panel was scheduled Thursday to open a series of hearings on reforming the Tricare health care system.

President Barack Obama signed an overhaul of 20-year military pensions into law before Thanksgiving, which is the most substantial change to personnel benefits in years. But Congress is again searching for ways to trim ballooning troop costs and to modernize the all-volunteer services amid burgeoning threats around the world.

"Promotions are handed out according to predictable schedules with only secondary consideration of merit," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Armed Services Committee. "That's why even after more than a decade of service, there is essentially no difference in rank among officers of the same age. Is it really because they all perform the same or deserve the same rank?"

The officer promotion system was overhauled in 1980 by Congress to consolidate a variety of conventions used by the military services, but that system has since drawn criticism for being too inflexible, especially in an era of fast-advancing technology that requires servicemembers with specific expertise.

"I think fundamentally it's not about a particular constraint, it's about the paradigm that the [defense] department follows that all officers look the same … We are grooming all officers to be chief of staff," David Chu, former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told the Armed Services Committee.

Officers now almost invariably face a 30-year cap on their service, meaning they often leave service at age 52. It is a rule that "makes no sense" and should be changed to accommodate longer service for a variety of careers such as in cyber warfare, medical, the chaplain corps, intelligence and acquisition, said Bernard Rostker, also a former undersecretary for personnel and readiness and now a senior fellow at the Rand Corporation.

The military's 70-year-old "up or out" policies that force out servicemembers who do not advance rank might be shunning needed expertise, said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a committee ranking member.

"It may not be the right system for highly technical occupations, such as cyber experts, pilots, doctors, or special operators, in whom we may have invested millions of dollars in training," Reed said.

The initial Senate hearing Tuesday is to be followed by a series of other hearings that will stretch into next year and that McCain has said could also focus on other personnel matters such as health care and change of duty station payments.

The House Armed Services Committee plans to first tackle the Tricare system, which provides health care and insurance coverage to servicemembers and their families. A blue-ribbon review committee selected by Congress released a report in February calling for major changes.

The House will hear testimony from the Military Officers Association of America and the Enlisted Association of the National Guard.

The congressional hearings could lead to new reform proposals that will be folded into next year's defense authorization bill, similar to the changes that created a blended, 401(k)-style military retirement system last week.

Reed said about one-third of the Defense Department budget goes to personnel costs but that percentage supports about half the number of active-duty troops it did in 1980.

The United States might be pricing itself out of an effective military with overly expensive compensation and benefits systems, he said.

"In my view, hard choices will need to be made, especially in the budget environment we find ourselves," Reed said. "We made some difficult choices this year, including the enactment of a new retirement benefit for tomorrow's force, but we need to do more."

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