A Senate panel has agreed to supersize President Joe Biden’s defense budget request in large part to address inflation, but that money would not go toward a beefed up basic pay raise for service members struggling with spiking prices.
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, would authorize bigger pots of money for the services to offer more special and incentive pay and recruiting and retention bonuses to address inflation concerns, committee staffers told reporters Thursday on condition of anonymity under terms set by the committee.
But for basic pay, senators stuck with a 4.6% pay raise for 2023 in the NDAA that was advanced out of the committee in a 23-3 vote Thursday.
Still, the chairman of the committee appeared to leave the door open to going higher than 4.6% as the lengthy process of the bill becoming law proceeds.
“We're also, I think, consciously sensitive to the issue, and we still have a long ways to go until final passage,” Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., told reporters.
Reed previously told Military.com he had concerns that troops “won't see the same benefit they usually do” from the pay raise because of inflation.
More broadly, the committee agreed to increase the defense budget by $45 billion above what the Biden administration requested for fiscal 2023. That would bring next year’s national security budget to $857.6 billion, including $817.3 billion for the Pentagon.
Most of the extra $45 billion is because inflation increased costs for items already in the budget, Reed said. Biden’s budget request assumed an inflation level of about 2%, but inflation is currently above 8%.
A chunk of the extra funding would also go toward buying weapons from the service’s so-called “unfunded priorities" -- wish lists of items they’d want if lawmakers give them more money than requested, such as the seven more F-35 fighter jets the Air Force had on its list.
And some of the extra money would bulk up funding for Ukraine amid its war to repel Russia’s invasion. Specifically, the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative would get $800 million, instead of the $300 million requested by the Biden administration, according to a bipartisan summary of the bill.
But on the basic pay raise, committee staffers suggested there was a hesitancy to go above the administration’s request for service members because that would open up questions about increasing civilian Defense Department pay, which in turn would open up debate about pay for all federal employees. Federal civilians have typically gotten the same pay raise as service members, though there have been years when troops got a raise while civilian pay stayed flat.
In addition to inflation concerns, the services have been sounding the alarm about recruiting and retaining service members amid a competitive job market.
The services are offering all-time high bonuses to get recruits in the door. But a staffer told reporters Thursday that some of the services are already maxing out their incentives, so the committee wanted to give them more flexibility so they can implement plans to reverse trends in declining recruiting.
The NDAA is a policy bill, not a spending bill, meaning Congress would have to pass a separate appropriations bill matching what’s in the NDAA for any extra funding to become a reality.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.