Money for 5.2% Troop Pay Raise, Enlisted Hardship Bonuses Included in Last-Minute Government Funding Bill

Visitors walk outside of the U.S. Capitol
Visitors walk outside of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

Nearly six months after the fiscal year started and just two days before a partial government shutdown could start, lawmakers have unveiled an agreement to provide the Pentagon with $825 billion for this fiscal year that eschews controversial policy riders on abortion and LGBTQ+ service members.

If passed, the legislation would ensure troop pay is uninterrupted and avoid the devastating effects to personnel funding military officials have warned could happen if Congress does not approve a regular spending bill this year.

The agreement, reached by leaders in both parties in the House and Senate, would provide the funding necessary to support the 5.2% pay raise troops got in January.

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While the pay raise took effect without Congress approving an appropriations bill, defense officials have said that not having the funding for the raise could eventually force the department to cannibalize other parts of the personnel budget, such as for recruiting efforts and permanent change-of-station moves.

Since the start of the fiscal year in October, Congress has passed a series of stopgap funding measures that simply extended last year's funding levels with no changes or increases. The stopgap measures also largely prevented the Pentagon from starting new programs.

The spending agreement released Thursday would provide $43 million more than the administration requested to fund an economic hardship bonus for E-6s and below that was authorized by the defense policy bill Congress passed in December, as well as for an expansion of the Basic Needs Allowance that was also approved in the defense policy bill.

Not included in the final agreement is a plan to hike pay for junior enlisted troops by more than 30%. The idea was part of the House's initial draft of the bill, but was considered unlikely to survive negotiations. While overhauling the pay chart won't happen right now, lawmakers have already signaled they are looking to boost junior enlisted pay for next fiscal year.

The deal would provide $29.6 billion to fund housing allowances and $8.4 billion for the Basic Allowance for Subsistence, according to a summary from Senate Appropriations Committee Democrats. It would also give the department $80 million more than it requested for enlistment and medical bonuses, and $30 million more than it requested for recruiting and advertising efforts.

"Critically, this bill makes important new investments in the brave men and women who keep our country safe," Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement. "It will help ensure our military families are able to make ends meet and get the child care they need."

House Republicans loaded up their initial version of the spending bill with riders that took aim at Pentagon policies they consider "woke," including provisions that would have prohibited gender-affirming health care for transgender troops and reversed the Pentagon's policy of paying for travel and leave for service members seeking abortions.

Republicans also sought to cut the salaries of several top Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, to $1.

But much like the results of December's defense policy bill, all of those controversial GOP riders were taken out of the final spending bill agreement released Thursday.

Still, House Republicans are touting that the spending bill would cut $50.5 million from diversity and inclusion programs and $574 million from climate change-related programs.

"Fundamentally, the bills achieve what House Republicans set out to do by strategically increasing defense spending, rescinding wasteful Democrat spending, and making targeted cuts to overfunded non-defense programs," House Appropriations Committee Republicans wrote in their summary of the agreement.

Also taken out of the final agreement is a provision that researchers argued could have made it harder to uncover stolen valor. The provision would have required anyone seeking basic information about a service member's record to either get the service member's consent or file a Freedom of Information Act request that could take months or years to fulfill.

The provision was a response to the Air Force improperly releasing personal information of several veterans who ran for Congress in the 2022 elections, including a veteran whose record detailed her alleged sexual assault.

While the language making it harder to request service records was taken out of the final bill, the nonbinding report accompanying the bill calls for the Pentagon to brief Congress on plans to prevent feature breaches of personal information and to conduct a review of its privacy policies.

The funding bill is expected to pass Congress, but whether it can happen before Friday night's deadline is unclear. The House has scheduled a vote on the bill for Friday. That gives the notoriously slow Senate, where any one senator can delay consideration of the bill, just hours to approve the legislation before current funding expires after midnight.

A short lapse in funding over the weekend would be unlikely to cause major disruptions in government operations, including troop pay, as shutdown procedures would likely not start until the workweek begins Monday.

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