The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed a $601 billion defense bill that would spare cuts to military benefits next year, despite a veto threat from the White House and major areas of disagreement in the Senate.
The House voted 325-98 in approving its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, which sets policy goals and spending targets for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
The bill would give troops, with the exception of general and flag officers, a 1.8 percent pay raise in keeping with private-sector wage growth. It would also reject the Defense Department's other proposals to curb personnel costs by reducing housing, commissary and Tricare benefits. It would also restore funding for the A-10 gunship, EA-18G electronic warfare jet and other weapons programs.
"This is solid legislation," Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-California, the retiring chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement after its passage. "But, it is not perfect legislation. We had to make too many cuts, too many hard trade-offs, and too many reductions … I fear these will leave our war fighters fewer tools to succeed."
The bill, which would authorize $521.3 billion for the Pentagon's so-called base budget and other defense-related programs, as well as $79.4 billion in war funding, is far from becoming law.
The Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, is still amending, or marking up, its version of the legislation. The panel's personnel subcommittee on Wednesday approved language that calls for a 1 percent troop pay raise, slowing the growth of basic allowances for housing, and increasing 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 subcommittee's chairwoman, said during a 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."
What's more, President Obama has threatened to veto the House's version of the legislation because his administration said the bill would eliminate some $50 billion in proposed savings over five years. More than 60 percent of the savings came from recommendations to reform military compensation.
"To achieve a proper balance between DOD's obligation to provide competitive pay and benefits to service members and its responsibility to provide troops the finest training and equipment possible, it is imperative to slow the growth of basic pay and housing allowances, modernize military healthcare, and reform how commissaries operate," the White House's Office of Management and Budget said in a statement earlier this week.
The administration is awaiting the recommendations of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, an independent body that's expected to issue a comprehensive report in February, but "delaying DOD's holistic package of proposed initial changes will only result in increased costs and risks to the force," it added.
The Pentagon's top civilian and military officials have argued the reductions are needed to curb personnel 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 House bill includes defense-related funding outside of the Pentagon, including $17.9 billion for the Energy Department and $7.9 billion in so-called mandatory defense spending, which is why its non-war total differs from that of the Defense Department's request.
The Senate subcommittee agreed with the House in rejecting the department's 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.
The Military Officers Association of America, an Alexandria, Va.-based advocacy group representing some 380,000 current and former officers, estimates the Pentagon's 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.
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."
McKeon received a standing ovation from both Republicans and Democrats upon the chamber's passage of his final defense policy bill. While he will retire at the end of his term in January, he said he's "eager" to start work with his colleagues in the Senate on resolving legislative differences.
"It is my hope that we get this done before the November election, so that our new House and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairmen will have time to do the hard work and preparation for 2015 and the defense challenges ahead," he said.
-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org