A Republican lawmaker is renewing an effort to boost the salary of the lowest-paid service members.
Service members would be entitled to a base pay rate of at least $31,200 per year, or the equivalent of $15 per hour for a 40-hour workweek, under the Raising Annual Income of Servicemembers by Enhancing, or RAISE, Minimum Base Pay Act reintroduced by Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., late last week.
"To build the military of the future that will deter aggression from China and other adversaries, we must be able to recruit and retain qualified Americans to serve in our military," Garcia said in a statement Friday. "The simple reality is that we can't do that if your local fast food chain is paying more than the armed services."
Right now, the most junior members of the military make about $22,000 in base pay annually, not including any stipends such as the Basic Allowance for Housing. The minimum wage in Garcia's bill roughly amounts to what an E-4 with at least two years of experience makes right now.
Service members of all ranks are on track to receive a 5.2% base pay raise in 2024, which will be the biggest annual increase in two decades. But lawmakers have expressed interest in reforming pay scales and allowances beyond the annual raise amid concerns that junior enlisted members are struggling to afford basic necessities such as food and housing, especially given high inflation.
"Some 23,000 service members, many of whom also provide for their families, rely on food stamps just to make ends meet," Garcia said in his statement. "That is 23,000 soldiers too many. If the government is paying for our service members to live on food stamps, we may as well pay them on the front end through base pay."
Garcia, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, has introduced his proposal several times in recent years as an amendment to the annual defense spending bill. In 2021, he withdrew the amendment without a vote amid promises from committee leadership to work with the House Armed Services Committee to study the issue more in depth.
Last year, it got voted down, with most Democrats opposing and most Republicans supporting. While Democrats said they agreed with the sentiment behind Garcia's amendment, they argued it was a piecemeal approach that could negatively affect other quality-of-life issues such as housing, since the raise would have needed to be offset with other funding.
With Republicans now holding a majority in the House, Garcia's proposal could see more traction this year.
Asked in recent hearings about boosting pay specifically for junior enlisted members, Pentagon officials have said pay and benefits updates need to be examined more comprehensively, pointing to a study already underway known as the Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation. That study, which is required by law, is meant to review whether pay and benefits are keeping pace with an evolving economy.
"In terms of looking at junior enlisted ranks, we have and we continually assess what bonuses, benefits, other incentives may apply to them," Navy Under Secretary Erik Raven said at a hearing last month when asked whether increasing junior enlisted pay would help with recruiting struggles. "I would have concerns about pulling out several rates for a general pay raise, because it could cause issues of pay compression compared to higher rates. But this is something we look forward to working with you on and finding the right way forward."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.