Senators Back Lower Pay Raises, Housing Allowances

Soldier holds a stack of cash.

A U.S. Senate subcommittee has backed the Defense Department's plans to curb military pay raises and housing allowances next year, a move that could set up a showdown with the House over the controversial proposals.

The Senate Armed Services Committee's Personnel Subcommittee on Wednesday voted to support the Pentagon's recommendations to limit pay raises for most troops to 1 percent in fiscal 2015 and slow the growth of basic allowances for housing until recipients eventually pay about 5 percent of the cost. It also agreed to increase pharmacy pays for prescriptions filled outside military treatment facilities.

"I'd like to be very clear: The cuts included are required because of the lower levels [of funding] required by sequestration," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, the panel's chairwoman, said during a brief hearing on Wednesday, referring to congressionally mandated automatic budget cuts. "I hope to be able to repeal some, or all of these provisions, once this bill's on the floor and we welcome that debate."

The full Senate committee led by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, was expected to begin debating the legislation in a closed session later in the day. The bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, sets policy and spending targets for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

The House's counterpart panel led by Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-California, earlier this month passed its version of the legislation, which called for a 1.8 percent pay raise for all troops except general and flag officers. It also rejected the Pentagon's other proposals to curb personnel costs by reducing housing, commissary and Tricare benefits.

"These cuts result in thousands of dollars of additional out-of-pocket expenses for military families," a fact sheet on the legislation states. "Chairman McKeon categorically rejects these cuts."

The Military Officers Association of America, an Alexandria, Va.-based advocacy group representing some 380,000 current and former officers, estimates the pay and benefits proposals would translate into an annual loss of almost $5,000 in purchasing power for the average E-5 with 10 years of experience and a family of four. That breaks down to a loss of about $2,970 in commissary benefits, $1,224 in basic allowance for housing, $593 in basic pay and $206 in Tricare.

The Pentagon and top military brass argue the reductions are needed to curb personal costs, which are budgeted at $177 billion next year – more than a third of the department's non-war budget of $496 billion. Including civilian personnel, the percentage rises to almost half of the spending plan.

The Senate subcommittee agreed with the House Armed Services Committee in dismissing proposals to reduce subsidies for commissaries, a move that would increase prices by as much as 20 percent and likely cause some stateside stores to close; consolidate Tricare into a single health care plan with higher fees and more flexibility for military families to seek treatment from civilian doctors; and adopt a new enrollment fee for Medicare-eligible retirees seeking Tricare-for-Life coverage.

Gillibrand said she has "serious concerns" with the recommendations because they preempt the work of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, an independent body that's expected to issue a comprehensive report next February, and because of their potential to harm "our troops, retirees and their families, especially our lower enlisted troops."

The subcommittee's legislative package also included an amendment from Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, known as the Service Members Compensation Empowerment Act, which would "encourage the commission to formally take survey preferences of military members at different grades, different service branches, different times in service, into account before making recommendations to us," Kaine said.

Of the more than 2,000 active-duty service members who responded to a voluntary online survey recently conducted by Military.com, 94 percent disagreed with curbing BAH benefits, 90 percent opposed lowering next year's pay raise to 1 percent, and 81 percent disagreed with reducing commissary subsidies.

Troops also resoundingly rejected suggestions from military leaders that the compensation changes aren't "on their minds."

Almost all active-duty respondents – 96 percent – said they disagreed with comments like those made by Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett, who recently testified, "Marines don't run around [asking] about compensation, benefits, retirement modernization. That's not on their minds." While Barrett has since sought to distance himself from the remarks, they left a bad impression with many of those in uniform.

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@monster.com

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