'That Pisses Me Off': Congressman to Lead Panel on Struggles for Troops Focusing on Pay, Food Insecurity

U.S. Rep. Don Bacon speaks during an event at Offutt Air Force Base.
U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, former commander of Offutt's 55th Wing, speaks during an event celebrating the 20th year of the 170th Group at Offutt Air Force Base, Sept. 10, 2022. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Lt. Col. Kevin Hynes)

With the House personnel subcommittee targeting "other issues" like politicization in the military, the House Armed Services Committee has set up a new panel that will exclusively focus on the issues that directly impact service members' quality of life.

Boosting pay for junior enlisted service members and improving military housing conditions will be among the priorities of the new subpanel, its leader told Military.com in an interview Monday.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., also envisions his new quality-of-life panel probing gaps in military health care coverage, long waitlists for military day care centers, and the difficulties military spouses face in finding employment.

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Bacon expects the first hearings of the quality-of-life panel will focus on pay issues. While service members get an annual raise -- including a 4.6% increase this year that was the largest pay bump in 20 years -- the lawmaker said the across-the-board raises have exacerbated a pay gap between junior and senior personnel.

Exactly how to fix that will depend on what the panel finds in its hearings, but Bacon suggested the possibility of reforming pay scales or adjusting stipends such as the Basic Allowance for Subsistence.

"We want a concrete plan on pay. For me, that would be a tremendous success. If I can ensure that our junior enlisted are not on SNAP or food stamps, right there is a huge success," he said. "I talk to a junior enlisted guy and he says he's on SNAP, that pisses me off. That should piss everybody off, make us all angry. A guy's serving our country and he has to have his family on SNAP. That's unacceptable."

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is the formal name for food stamps. The Basic Needs Allowance created by Congress two years ago was meant to address food insecurity among service members, but critics have said it falls short.

Issues with pay and food insecurity are just one potential point of concern for service members, concerns that in the aggregate may be contributing to the issues the military is facing with recruiting.

"Most of our services are not making their recruiting goals, they're not making their retention goals. There's a whole whole array of reasons why," said Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general. "I'm focused on quality of life. ... It's not the whole issue with recruitment and retention, but it's a big subset."

The Army last year missed its recruiting goal by about 15,000 soldiers, though there are signs this year will be better. The other services squeaked by to meet their recruiting goals, though in some cases they used tactics that could make meeting future benchmarks difficult such as dipping into their pool of delayed-entry applicants.

Bacon said he approached House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., about six months ago with a plan to tackle military quality-of-life issues, initially with the hope of being the chairman of the committee's personnel subcommittee.

The personnel subcommittee gavel ultimately went to Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind. But Bacon said Rogers felt quality-of-life issues were important enough to elevate to their own panel.

"He thought this was so important that we needed a separate committee to be solely focused on quality of life because the most important part of our military is the people part," Bacon said.

And while quality-of-life issues are typically the purview of the personnel subcommittee, Bacon said he expects the personnel subcommittee this congressional session will tackle "other issues" such as "politicization of the military." Banks, who has already launched a Senate campaign for 2024, has said his focus as personnel chairman will be "exposing and dismantling the Biden administration's woke agenda that is driving down military recruitment and retention."

Meanwhile, the new subpanel will be focused on a range of issues directly tied to quality of life, such as housing. Bacon said he wants to look at reforming the Basic Allowance for Housing, which has not kept pace with housing costs in areas with high costs of living, as well as ongoing issues with mold and other health hazards in military housing.

Bacon suggested past funding cuts are to blame for maintenance issues in privatized military housing. Military families have said they face unresponsive landlords and defense officials.

"A lot of folks point the finger at the privatized owners of these homes. Well, the military and the government was partially at fault here. We reduced money going into these homes," he said.

Bacon is also putting health care high on his priority list, saying he wants to reverse a trend of Tricare being "hollowed out" over the years. Spousal employment, including working with chambers of commerce on job opportunities, and child care, including cutting down months-long waitlists for daycare, are also on his agenda.

Bacon expects it will be a couple more months until the quality-of-life panel's work begins in earnest as the Armed Services Committee as a whole focuses first on organizing for the recently started congressional session. In addition to public hearings, he plans for his panel to conduct base visits. The panel is aiming to produce recommendations that could be included in the version of the annual defense policy bill that Congress will consider in 2024, rather than the bill that will be considered this year.

"I know there's folks on both sides of the aisle really desiring to be part of this because this has a chance to impact our military for decades to come," he said. "I think people are also yearning for a bipartisan focus. This is not a Republican or Democrat focus. It's going to be a patriotic national focus of serving the folks who defend our country."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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