Let’s protect Coast Guard vets’ pay | Column

By CHARLIE CRIST

The defense bill includes a provision that would fix a problem that has endangered Coasties' retirement benefits, writes Rep. Crist.

For the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard, 2019 was an impactful year. From mobilizing for Hurricane Dorian, to conducting a record number of successful search and rescue missions, including keeping $6.2 billion in illegal drugs off our streets, it was a success by many metrics. But last year was memorable for the “Coastie” community for another reason, one that should not be repeated nor forgotten.

When Congress and the White House hit an impasse over the budget, a 35-day government shutdown ensued, one that held up pay for active duty Coast Guard members and put the retirement benefits of Coast Guard veterans in jeopardy.

Nearly 50,000 Coast Guard retirees were at risk of going without their monthly pension check during the shutdown. That’s because unlike every other branch of the U.S. military — Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force — Coast Guard retirement is funded by the annual appropriations bills — which is another way of saying that if Congress can’t write the check, Coast Guard veterans don’t get paid.

That’s why I introduced the Coast Guard Retirement Parity Act with Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss. This bipartisan legislation safeguards Coast Guard retirement payments by adding a branch-specific account to the Military Retirement Fund, the same fund that pays retirement benefits for all of the other branches of the military.

When the U.S. military, minus the Coast Guard, switched over to the Military Retirement Fund in the 1980s, it improved force size management and better accounted for the total lifetime costs of service members. The Coast Guard would gain similar management and accounting benefits with this change.

But the bottom line is this. Coast Guard veterans should be treated the same as the majority of our veterans. They should not have their benefits put at risk by a government shutdown, if, God forbid, we have another one in the future.

In a bit of good news, I’m proud to say that our bill protecting Coast Guard veterans’ pay has been included in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the House this month. It’s not a done deal, but there’s a strong chance it will be enacted into law this year, meaning the new rules would go into effect in 2022. In similar fashion, we still need to secure active duty Coast Guard pay from a future government shutdown. There’s another effort underway to try and make that happen, which I strongly support.

As a former governor and now U.S. congressman representing some of the largest Coast Guard installations in the country, I have had the great honor of witnessing up close the Coast Guard motto of “Semper Paratus,” always ready when duty calls. Coasties lay their lives on the line to protect and serve our country. Their dedicated service, professionalism and unique authorities, in no small part make our national defense as strong as it is today. We can return that blessing by ensuring those who served us are protected from political fights in their Golden Years.

Rep. Charlie Crist, a St. Petersburg Democrat, represents District 13 in Congress.


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