Military advocates are hopeful that, with Donald Trump in the White House, troops' pay and benefits will improve in coming years. But they’re not letting their guard down just yet.
In December, Congress approved the 2.1 percent military pay raise that took effect this month — one-half of a percent point more than the Pentagon's request — and scrapped controversial plans to scale back troops' housing stipends. Both moves were praised by those who've opposed the Obama administration's efforts to rein in military personnel costs, reductions the Pentagon deemed necessary as broader defense spending has tightened.
The 2.1 percent pay raise is the highest since 2010, and the first time in four years that troops’ raise has matched that of their private-sector peers. Trump has promised to “rebuild the military” through increased funding, and he has hinted at improving compensation in the process. But that will depend on cooperation from Congress, where military advocates have found allies and enemies in recent years.
“We’re not going to forget the attack on [housing stipends] last year, and we know they’re coming back,” said Dan Merry, vice president of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America. “So we’re watching everything closely.”
Last spring, Senate staffers inserted language into an early draft of the annual defense spending bill that would have fundamentally altered the military's housing allowance system, which today assigns flat-rate stipends for zip codes across the country. It's based on troops’ rank and family status, and often exceeds what they pay to live off base. The Senate's proposal called for creation of a reimbursement system, awarding troops only the precise amount they pay in rent each month. Dual military couples and service members who live with roommates would have seen their housing stipend cut in half, adjusted to cover actual costs and nothing more.
Senate staff defended the idea as a way to cut costs and waste without jeopardizing troops’ incomes. Pentagon officials defended the current system, calling it integral to the military's broader compensation package. MOAA and other advocacy groups called it a stealth strike on military families’ finances. House lawmakers ultimately rejected the idea, and it was dropped, for now. Merry said analysts intend to scour early drafts of the 2018 authorization bill — to be released in the coming months — for any new plans to adjust the housing stipend.
Meanwhile, military advocates will watch closely as Trump’s team moves to fill out the fiscal 2017 budget. In December, Congress passed a short-term budget extension keeping government operations running only through April. Quickly after his inauguration, Trump will need to offer his own proposal for the last few months of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, along with initial drafts of his fiscal 2018 budget.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook declined to forecast what the Defense Department's budget planning for 2018 could hold, striking a cautious tone while citing the long-term fiscal challenges that still face the federal government.
“It's important for all service members to be compensated appropriately within the restraints of the budget situation that we face as a country and as a government — and we continue to face constraints going forward,” he said, adding that Pentagon officials are “comfortable with” the 2.1 percent bump despite past objections. However, he declined to predict whether future pay raises will drop back below private-sector rates or grow even more.
Merry said he is optimistic.
“Generally speaking, we’ve had support from Congress on these issues. What it comes down to is sequestration," he said, referencing the federal spending caps put in place as part of the 2011 Budget Control Act. "We’ve got to end that.”
Trump made eliminating the spending caps one of this top campaign promises, though he’s likely to find the same partisan stalemate over the budget issue that stymied President Obama’s efforts to undo the restrictions.
Conservatives on Capitol Hill have pushed for removal of spending caps from defense accounts but still limiting the money spent on non-defense programs, while Democrats have pushed for equal budget hikes on military and non-military priorities.
That work is also expected to start in the next few weeks. Trump takes office on Jan. 20.
With reporting by Military Times' senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief Andrew deGrandpre.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at