The Bush administration continues to sound the alarm over rising military personnel costs from steady gains in pay and benefits voted by the Congress, including more new initiatives in the 2007 defense budget bill.

But Congress shows no sign of heeding the alarm, not while U.S. forces “stay the course” in Iraq and Afghanistan, separated from family and suffering casualties in an uncertain quest to help democracy take root there.

The latest administration criticisms of personnel costs appear in “heartburn” letters to the armed services committees from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. The administration, says OMB, “strongly opposes” several new initiatives for personnel in the House and Senate versions of the defense authorization bill nearing enactment.

The House wants to add an “unnecessary” half percentage point to the 2.2 percent military pay raise planned for January, and to make a premium-paid Tricare health plan available to all drilling reservists. Also creating concern at OMB is a Senate initiative that would repeal a reduction in survivor benefits that occurs when surviving spouses draw tax-free Dependency and Indemnity Compensation.

OMB criticizes both chambers for rejecting the Defense Department’s plan to raise Tricare fees for retired military beneficiaries under 65.

As floor debate on the Senate bill continued, more initiatives that raised the ire of the Bush team were being shaped into bill amendments. They included a faster end to the ban on “concurrent receipt” of military both retired pay and disability compensation for “unemployable” retirees, a lowering of age-60 retirement for deployed reserve forces, and a change to Reserve GI Bill eligibility so benefits can be used after they leave service.

What drives a Republican-led Congress to ignore a Republican president’s warnings about rising compensation costs? We asked two pay experts who hold opposing views about the merits of the current trend.

Cindy Williams, a researcher with the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been a prominent critic of rising military personnel costs. Steve Strobridge is a fierce advocate for improved pay and benefits as government relations director for the Military Officers Association of America and co-chairman of The Military Coalition, an umbrella group of three dozen service associations and veterans’ groups.

Military compensation costs have been climbing since September 1998 when the Joint Chiefs testified to shortfalls in recruiting and retention, said Williams. They blamed inadequate pay, a discounted retirement plan for people who had entered service since 1986, and broken promises of lifetime health care for older generations of retirees.

Congress responded by repealing the so-called Redux retirement plan, committing to six years of annual pay raises above private sector wages, special increases in housing allowances to match off-base rental costs, and establishing the Tricare for Life and Tricare Senior Pharmacy programs.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, lawmakers also have increased military death gratuities and life insurance, improved combat-zone tax breaks, raised danger and separation pays, ended a ban on concurrent receipt of retired pay and disability compensation for seriously disabled retirees, voted to phase out a drop in survivor benefits at age 62, and expanded health care and other benefits for mobilized Reserve and National Guard members.

Williams said she and other analysts expected the trend to stop when the Joint Chiefs finally decided that rising personnel costs were soaking up too many dollars needed for weapons and other readiness needs. They made those arguments this year but Congress still embraced new pay gains and rejected the chiefs’ plea to raise Tricare fees for under-65 retirees. Why?

Williams said pay and benefit initiatives have become “a political football” on Capitol Hill. “Neither party wants to be charged as the party that fails to provide what our men and women in uniform need,” she said. This is especially true in wartime, Williams agreed.

Also, service associations are far more powerful today and able through the Internet to flood congressional offices with e-mail whenever an issue is raised of negative consequence to their members.

“Congress is not in the mood right now to take any steps that would be in opposition to what the military associations want,” Williams said.

Williams and Strobridge, in separate interviews, agreed that congressional support for servicemembers is not tied specifically to the war in Iraq or to the heightened pace of operations since Sept. 11.

“My sense is the nation was feeling guilty about the way it was treating its military personnel as early as 1999,” Williams said.

The guilt should have surfaced earlier, said Strobridge. Throughout the 1990s, he said, “we had attacks on the commissaries. We had pay caps every year. … The [value of the] GI Bill was declining … It was a full decade of penalty after penalty being imposed on the military community.”

Lawmakers remain receptive to new pay initiatives, he said, “because they share our belief that the administration has been almost unbelievably insensitive to the sacrifices of today’s troops and [of those in] previous periods of conflict. We hear time and time again from administration leaders that money spent on retirees, survivors and anybody not actively serving doesn’t contribute to readiness. We don’t believe that. … Today’s active-duty forces look at the way the wounded are treated, the way disabled retirees are treated, the way survivors are treated and say … that may be me.”

It’s true that the Joint Chiefs now press for higher Tricare fees and complain of rising personnel costs, Strobridge said. “But that’s because it’s been beaten into them for years by political leaders that the only way you’re going to get money for weapon systems … is to cut people costs.”

Congress, so far, doesn’t agree.

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