The Obama administration on Wednesday voiced strong opposition to a controversial congressional proposal to cut back Basic Allowance for Housing for dual-military couples and for troops who share housing with other service members.
The targeted cut in BAH would "impose a marriage penalty," and "have a disproportionate negative impact on women service members," according to a statement outlining the administration's views on the Senate version of the 2016 defense authorization bill, unveiled in May.
The policy floated by the Republican-controlled Senate would limit dual-military couples to one BAH payment, specifically the rate due to the couple's higher-ranking or senior-most service member.
The proposal also would reduce BAH payments for many unmarried troops who share a home or apartment with another service member. For those in paygrades E-4 and higher, they would see their normal BAH rate cut back by 25 percent.
About 40,000 dual-military couples are on active duty around the world today, according to the Defense Department.
One of those couples recently bought a home in suburban Maryland.
"It's a pretty big piece of money that they are talking about taking away from us," said the Navy wife, a 28-year-old helicopter pilot assigned to a post in Maryland, in a telephone interview.
She receives about $1,900 monthly in BAH while her husband, a submariner assigned to a post in Virginia, receives about $2,400 in the tax-free housing allowance. She worries that if the current proposal became law, her Navy family would lose its larger BAH payment because she was commissioned shortly before her husband, making her technically senior to him.
A cut like that would not be catastrophic, she said, noting that her mortgage payment is about $1,900 and potentially manageable on a single BAH payment. But she said she needs that money to help pay for graduate school and also to start a family, which would require full-time child care for two active-duty parents.
"I kind of look at BAH as a piece of my salary. For someone to say I should get paid less because of who I'm married to doesn't really seem fair," she said.
Military families across the force are worried about the proposal, said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association.
"They feel like they are being nickel-and-dimed," Raezer said in an interview Wednesday.
The proposed cut to BAH is poorly thought out, she said. It could create a negative incentive by offering some troops more money for remaining unmarried. And it will have a disproportionate impact on women because about 20 percent of women on active duty are in dual-military couples, compared with only 3.7 percent of active-duty men.
"And how are they going to enforce that whole roommate thing?" Raezer said, wondering what kind of system DoD would develop to determine which service members are living with other service members in private-sector housing.
Today's troops have grown accustomed to a BAH policy that aims to cover up to 100 percent of estimated housing costs in a duty assignment's location.
That marks a big improvement from the 1990s, when BAH was intended only to cover about 80 percent of housing costs and troops and their families were expected to pay the remaining expense out of their own pockets.
Raezer said the rise in BAH has vastly improved service members' quality of life.
But now, as the Pentagon faces budget caps known as sequestration, BAH is a target for saving money.
DoD officially urged Congress to cut today's housing benefit to one that would cover only 95 percent of estimated housing costs. Congress gave that a cool reception last year and approved only a one-percentage-point reduction, to 99 percent.
The proposal in this year's Senate defense authorization bill would impose further gradual reductions.
The outcome of those proposals remains unclear. The House version of the annual defense bill does not contain any changes to BAH and the Obama administration's opposition to the cuts targeting dual-military families will put pressure on the Republican-controlled Senate to drop the measure from the bill in negotiations.
The cuts targeting families "will degrade the culture and environment needed to keep our military open and welcoming to military families and risks sacrificing the strengths they bring to our nation's defense," the Obama administration's statement said.