Groups Push Senators to Rethink Planned Cuts to Troop Pay, Benefits

A Sailor assigned to the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Rhode Island (SSBN 740) stands at attention. (U.S. Navy photo)
A Sailor assigned to the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Rhode Island (SSBN 740) stands at attention. (U.S. Navy photo)

Troop advocates led by the powerful Military Officers Association of America are pressing key senators to reconsider controversial budget proposals that would cut military pay and benefits.

Norb Ryan, president of MOAA, the nation’s largest officers’ association, said he’s concerned the final compromise on the 2015 defense budget may include proposals to reduce troop pay raises, housing allowances and pharmacy benefits. He’s calling for the Senate to debate the issue like it did this week for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

The House of Representatives passed its version of the 2015 defense authorization bill, which sets policy and spending goals. But the legislation stalled in the Senate.

Now, leaders of defense panels in both chambers are negotiating to bypass the normal legislative process to get the bill passed by the end of the year.

"I’m disappointed that they can't take one day to have a healthy debate by all duly elected 100 senators,” he said during an interview on Thursday with Military.com. "The 435 representatives took the time to do it … Why can’t the Senate do the same?”

His group led a lobbying blitz in recent days to persuade senators on both sides of the political aisle to rethink the Pentagon’s plans to cut troop pay raises to 1 percent from the statutory 1.8 percent, curb basic allowances for housing (BAH) by 5 percent over three years, and increase Tricare pharmacy co-pays.

Last week, the organization flooded senators with letters urging them to support amendments that would block the proposals. This week, it took out advertisements in Capitol Hill newspapers Politico and The Hill with a similar message.

Ryan, a retired vice admiral who was once the chief of naval personnel, has also spoken out against the plans to multiple news outlets.

"It looks like DoD is throwing a bunch of stuff on the wall and hoping that something sticks,” he said. "They think we have to fund readiness by taking the money away from the people who are being asked to do more and more.”

The House Armed Services Committee, led by retiring Rep. Howard "Buck” McKeon of California, was silent on the troop pay issue, but opposed the benefits reductions. The House version of the bill doesn’t specify a pay raise of 1 percent, though it gives President Barack Obama the authority to set it at that level, which he has already vowed to do.

By law, the raises are supposed to keep pace with private-sector wage growth, measured at 1.8 percent in 2015.

Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee, headed by retiring Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, backed many of the recommended personnel cuts – reportedly with support from such Republicans as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina – to help the Defense Department better manage automatic, across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration.

Pentagon officials have said the changes are needed curb personnel costs, which are budgeted at $177 billion in fiscal 2015, or 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.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey cited the latter figure this week at a defense conference in Washington, D.C., in arguing for why the Pentagon needs support from Capitol Hill to make the necessary reforms.

"The joint chiefs linked arms and said, ‘OK, we got it. We got to get our manpower costs under control to make the all-volunteer force sustainable,’” he said. "But we're not getting any of them.”

The Congressional Budget Office this month released a report showing the Pentagon’s base budget surged 31 percent to $502 billion in fiscal 2014 from $384 billion in fiscal 2000 in inflation-adjusted terms. "Several factors contributed to that growth,” it states. "The largest rate of growth was in the costs for military personnel, which increase by 46 percent over the period.”

Ryan argues that manpower costs consume about the same share of the defense budget as they did in the 1980s. The increased personnel spending helped eliminate a pay gap between the military and civilian sector, and expand troop benefits that improved the quality of the force, he said. What’s more, the rate of growth in personnel costs has actually declined since 2011, he said.

"Thank God the Congress had the vision to improve pay, to improve housing, to improve medical – the things that have sustained the all-volunteer force through these 13 years of war,” he said. "Now, we’re afraid all of that is going to be undone.”

Meeting with reporters in September, Sen. Levin said: "We’re going to get an authorization bill one way or another, I’m confident of that, ideally with amendments.” But that appears to have changed.

The lawmakers held negotiations this week to craft a conference report, a fast-track maneuver that would skip the normal process of debating and voting on amendments. But they hit a stalemate over the personnel proposals and left town on recess Thursday before finishing the work. Congress is set to return in December for a couple of weeks before adjourning for the year.

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at Brendan.McGarry@military.com

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