The new House subcommittee chairman on military personnel called on the Pentagon Wednesday to cut waste and cost overruns on weapons systems before looking for savings by trimming pay and benefits for the troops.
Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nevada, acknowledged that the Defense Department has a difficult task in managing budgets under the Congressionally-mandated sequester process, but "before you start making significant changes in compensation, you'd better figure out where every penny can be saved in procurement and acquisitions."
Heck said his goal was to make sure that the government does not "break faith" with the promises made to currently serving troops on pay and benefits to protect the budget line for "weapons systems that sometimes never come off the assembly line. That doesn't mean we can't change pay and benefits in the future."
In a phone interview, Heck was also critical of Pentagon leaders for pushing reforms on quality of life issues ranging from housing allowances to commissaries ahead of the recommendations of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, which was authorized by Congress in 2013.
Heck said that his top priority as new chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel was to review the Commission's final report and recommendations, which were expected on Feb. 1.
"That's the No. 1 area for the subcommittee," Heck said. "We want to take a hard look at the report and see what, if anything, should be adopted."
The stance of Heck, a brigadier general in the Army Reserves and one of 25 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the new Congress, foreshadowed another battle with the Defense Department and the Obama administration on military compensation in the House and Senate.
The compensation issue was also expected to figure in the upcoming Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearings in early February for Ashton Carter, President Obama's nominee to replace Chuck Hagel as defense secretary.
The current National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) limited military pay raises to one percent in 2015, as opposed to the 1.8 percent adopted by the House.
The NDAA also scaled back the Basic Allowance for Housing by one percent, meaning that the monthly BAH checks for 2015 will be calculated to cover 99 percent of the estimated cost of local housing. The Pentagon had pushed for a BAH cut of five percent.
For years, the Pentagon has said that personnel costs are growing too fast and taking up too large a percentage of the military's overall budget.
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said last fall that the Pentagon would push again this year for reforms in pay, benefits, housing, retirement, commissaries and Tricare. Without the reforms, the U.S. military would be left with a $90 billion shortfall in its budget, Work said.
"This whole idea of compensation is absolutely critical. Compensation (reform) is a really big deal" in DoD's efforts to maintain readiness, combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and shift forces to the Pacific while working under the budgetary restrictions of the sequester process, Work told the Council on Foreign Relations.
Congress has opposed "what we consider to be reasonable approaches. It's been no, no, no, no, no, no, no" to nearly every suggestion. "This is la-la land," Work said.
Norbert R. Ryan, Jr., president of the Military Officers Association of America, charged that Work and the Pentagon had gone too far already in pushing compensation reform.
"It looks like DoD is throwing a bunch of stuff on the wall and hoping that something sticks," Ryan said in November. "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 Pentagon has set up working groups to review the final report of the Military Compensation Commission when it is filed on Feb. 1 and to make recommendations to President Obama within 60 days. Heck said his subcommittee will be drawing up its own recommendations during that period.
The new subcommittee chairman said he expected a two-tiered approach to emerge from the Commission's recommendations to preserve pay and benefits for currently serving troops while proposing changes for the next generation of service members.
Alphonso Maldon, Jr., the chairman of the nine-member Commission, has signaled that the benefits of the current force would be maintained while also stressing that the Commission was "putting everything on the table, taking a look at everything."
In an interview with Federal News Radio last June, when the Commission filed an interim report, Maldon said the Commission members had learned in town hall meetings with troops that "cash is important."
"They want quality of life. They want to make sure that they don't lose benefits. They don't want the budget balanced on the backs of military members," he said.
For recruits entering the military in the coming years, pay and benefits would likely change under the Commission's final recommendations, said Maldon, a former assistant Defense Secretary for personnel and a founding partner of the Washington Nationals baseball team. "Their benefits would be affected by those recommendations."
Heck, a physician who served with the 325th Combat Support Hospital at al-Asad airbase in Iraq in 2008, said he had several bottom lines in mind when it comes to looking at the Commission's recommendations, beginning with Tricare.
"I am reluctant to pass along costs (in co-pays) to beneficiaries," Heck said.
Heck said he also would be against shutting down stateside commissaries – a frequent proposal of cost-cutters.
"I'm not sure that getting rid of commissaries is going to be a significant cost savings," he said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.