Battle lines may be forming between the House and the Senate over the future of commissaries.
House appropriators on Tuesday restored $322 million that defense officials sought to cut from the Defense Commissary Agency budget for 2016. A budget reduction of that size would force most commissaries to cut operating days and hours.
The House appropriations bill next goes to the full House, which in May rejected the Pentagon's proposed cuts to commissary funding as part of its version of the 2016 defense authorization bill.
However, the Senate Armed Services Committee, in its draft version of the authorization bill, agreed to cut that $322 million from the commissary system's annual $1.4 billion budget. That provision would allow the Defense Department to raise prices to cover operating costs. Under current law, all commissary products must be sold at cost.
That sets up a potentially divisive discussion to be reconciled in coming weeks when House and Senate lawmakers push ahead to finalize next year's defense budget.
The Senate Armed Services Committee also took the first step toward privatizing commissaries in its authorization bill, requiring DoD to submit a plan on privatizing stores, and then requiring the plan to be tested on at least five commissaries in the largest markets.
House congressional aides earlier noted that even if funding is restored to the stores in the final version of next year's defense bill, DoD still would have authority to cut hours and days of commissary operation without lawmakers' approval.
Senate appropriators have not yet marked up their version of next year's defense spending bill. Differences in the House and Senate versions of both the defense authorization and appropriations bills must be reconciled in conference before final versions are approved and sent to the president to sign into law.
House appropriators also asked for a report regarding commissary costs by Dec. 1, detailing any savings that could be squeezed out of air transportation contracts, and the potential effects on the funding needed to ship products to overseas stores. Those costs are paid by taxpayer dollars so prices in overseas stores will be the same as those in continental U.S. stores.
DoD asked for authority to raise prices to cover the cost of shipping those groceries overseas, while noting that the costs would be paid by customers worldwide, so that overseas patrons would not have to bear all the burden. Officials have said the overall price increase would be about 2 percent.
House appropriators directed DoD to defer any policy that would raise prices to pay for those overseas charges until 30 days after they submit the required report on commissary costs to the congressional defense committees.
That study would come on top of another study being conducted as a provision of the 2015 defense budget, designed to evaluate the effects of various cost-saving initiatives on military resale and morale, welfare and recreation benefits.