Military Times

Commissary privatization meets Senate resistance

Two key members of Senate defense committees have introduced an amendment to "put the brakes" on a plan to turn the operation of commissaries over to private companies.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, introduced the amendment to strike a provision approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee in May that would require the Defense Department to develop a plan to privatize the Defense Commissary Agency.

The armed services committee wants DoD to test that privatization plan in at least five commissaries chosen from the commissary agency's largest U.S. markets.

The new amendment doesn't rule out privatization, but instead require DoD to study the idea, and submit a report to Congress by Feb. 1.

The amendment is expected to be considered by the Senate next week.

No amendment has been introduced to address another aspect of the Senate Armed Services Committee's draft provision of the defense authorization bill that would allow DoD to raise prices for the first time to cover commissary operating costs.

Commissary items now must be sold at cost plus a 5 percent surcharge that pays for construction. Critics have said raising prices could reduce the commissary discount, averaging about 30 percent, to the point where it would no longer be a benefit.

The bill also includes a separate SASC provision that would allow DoD to raise prices to pay for shipping commissary products overseas, a move expected to increase prices to shoppers by about 2 percent.

In a joint statement announcing the amendment against privatization, Inhofe said that "once a commissary is privatized, it will be nearly impossible for such an action to be reversed if the result negatively impacts our military members' budgets and way of life. By privatizing commissaries at five installations next year, it starts the domino effect for all the others across the nation."

Inhofe noted that commissaries are a widely used benefit. Mikulski said commissaries are one of the most important tools to support and promote the health and well-being of military families.

"At a time when thousands of junior troops and families use food stamps, it's wrong to make changes that could increase costs at the checkout line," she said in the statement.

"These families face enough stress. Before we make drastic changes like privatizing commissaries, we need to fully evaluate what it would mean for our military families."

Another six Republicans and seven Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors of the amendment.

In addition, 39 military and veteran service organizations are opposed to the privatization language in the bill.

The Obama administration this week also expressed concerns about the Senate committee's privatization plan for commissaries, in a statement detailing the administration's views on a number of the provisions laid out in the draft bill.

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