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New wrinkle in 2015 pay raise debate

Jun. 10, 2014 - 01:48PM   |  
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Some House lawmakers have launched one more push to give troops more cash next year.

In its draft of the 2015 defense appropriations bill, the House Appropriations Committee’s defense panel funded a 1.8 percent pay raise for troops for 2015, a move that would keep military pay in line with the most recent increase in private-sector wages.

In a statement, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., panel’s chairman, called the move a way to “keep faith with the brave men and women, and their families, who selflessly serve our country.”

But that goes against the grain of the House and Senate Armed Services committees. In their respective versions of the 2015 defense authorization bill passed last month, both committees bowed to the Pentagon’s request to cap next year’s raise at 1 percent, a move defense officials have said would save about $12 billion over five years.

The Senate Armed Services Committee authorized outright a 1 percent raise. House Armed Services Committee members, however, were squishier on the issue; they said they support the higher raise in principle, but stopped short of actually authorizing it — a move they acknowledged would leave President Obama with executive authority to unilaterally limit next year’s basic pay raise to 1 percent.

The two armed services committees will confer later this year to iron out differences in their bills.

If the final compromise bill specifically calls for a 1 percent raise, then whatever the appropriations committees say will not matter. Still, military and veterans advocacy groups have not given up.

“I’d say we’re more hopeful than expectant,” said Michael Hayden of the Military Officers Association of America, noting that many House members still seem to support a 1.8 percent raise, “and we’re going to push hard to convince the Senate, too.”

The 0.8 percentage point difference at stake is not huge, but would be noticeable. For an E-3 with three years of service, the difference would total about $195 a year, and for an O-5 with 12 years, $667.

Pentagon planners are less concerned with the loss of a few hundred dollars for individual troops than they are with the $12 billion-plus in savings over five years that could be redirected to readiness and modernization accounts.

But Hayden said MOAA is concerned about the potential for a return to the big military-civilian pay gaps of the 1990s, which took a heavy toll on recruiting and retention and required more than a decade of generous pay raises to fix.

He also noted that the Pentagon’s current plans call for capped raises below private-sector wage growth for a number of years. “It’s not just a one-time issue,” he said.

Supporters of the higher raise want Congress to hold off on capping basic pay until after the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission issues its report in early 2015.

House and Senate leaders have said they want to finalize the authorization bill before the November elections, but the Senate still hasn’t said when its draft bill might come to a full floor vote.

Meanwhile, the House appropriations bill could come before the full chamber by mid-summer, but the schedule for the Senate Appropriations Committee is murkier.

As such, troops may not have a handle on their 2015 pay raise until just before the new year.

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