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House lawmakers cool to DoD pay, benefits proposals

Mar. 25, 2014 - 04:50PM   |  
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The Pentagon’s pay and benefits proposals for fiscal 2015 would be crippling for troops and their families, and potentially a disincentive for many to continue serving, according to House lawmakers who oversee personnel programs in the annual defense budget.

At a hearing Tuesday, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s military personnel panel, hinted that proposals to trim basic pay, housing stipends, Tricare benefits and commissary offerings could be overhauled by lawmakers in coming weeks as they finalize their budget priorities.

Wilson said that while defense officials insist the changes would not hurt troops’ quality of life, “there’s no doubt it will cut purchasing power” of troops and “affect their day-to-day financial decisions.”

The Pentagon’s fiscal 2015 budget request includes plans to cut about 36,700 troops across the force. It would cap the annual basic pay raise at 1 percent next year and for several years after, and reduce housing allowances to cover only about 95 percent of troops’ housing costs.

The Pentagon’s total request for its military personnel accounts next year, about $135 billion, would mark a six-year low.

But military officials defended the plan as an unpalatable necessity to ensure troops’ readiness and equipment aren’t compromised.

“The quality of life for our personnel is good, and we know we have to slow the growth to balance our force,” said Jessica Wright, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

Outside military advocates dispute that, saying Pentagon leaders are unfairly singling out personnel to balance the budget. Several lawmakers at the hearing agreed, predicting recruiting and retention problems in years to come if troops bear too much of the fiscal burden.

Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., said he understands the need to make dramatic changes to military personnel costs, but he does not support taking any action before the congressionally mandated Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission offers its own recommendations early next year.

“You’re moving down the path ahead of the commission,” Heck said. “It seems like the Defense Department is willing to make changes without any information” from the commission.

Wright said defense officials have held off on retirement reform in anticipation of the commission’s report, but feel confident they have the data they need to move ahead with the other compensation changes.

She said next year’s recommendations could change that, but added that military planners need to start bringing those costs under control as soon as possible.

The earliest that the commission’s suggestions could realistically be reflected in the Pentagon budget would be fiscal 2017.

The House Armed Services Committee is expected to finalize its version of the annual defense authorization bill for fiscal 2015 in May. Members of the House and Senate have said they hope to pass a final bill before the new fiscal year starts in October.

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