Senators have delayed a plan to privatize commissaries, passing an amendment that requires defense officials to study the idea before marching forward with any plan or test.

"This amendment puts all efforts to [privatize] commissaries on hold, requiring instead an assessment on privatizing before we make significant changes to our service member's commissary benefits," Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said in a statement.

"There are too many unknowns as to whether privatization could directly impact military members' ability to provide for their families as well as the potential for it to affect retention."

Inhofe and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., introduced the amendment.

A report assessing the concept of privatizing commissaries must be submitted to Congress by Feb. 1, according to the amendment to the Senate's version of the 2016 defense authorization bill, which passed by voice vote Wednesday.

Inhofe announced his intent to oppose the provision to privatize commissaries when it was approved in draft legislation of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senators originally would have required defense officials to develop a plan to have private companies operate commissaries, and would have had to test it in at least five stores chosen from the commissary agency's largest U.S. markets.

The House version of the defense policy bill does not address commissary privatization.

But lawmakers will have to hammer out some other differences regarding the commissary in the House and Senate versions. A proposal included in the Senate version would strike the law that requires commissaries to sell all items at cost, and replace it with a provision that would require defense officials to mark up prices to cover operating expenses.

Today, the commissary system's annual $1.4 billion budget covers those operating expenses precisely so commissary items can be sold at cost. That gives patrons average overall savings of about 30 percent compared to civilian stores outside installation gates, according to commissary officials.

"I'm all for eliminating Pentagon waste, but no money is wasted at a commissary," said Mikulski, in a joint statement with Inhofe.

"In fact, just the opposite happens. Commissaries feed our troops. They help military families stretch their budgets, and they provide jobs to military spouses, children old enough to work, and military retirees. And commissaries are the military's most popular earned benefit.

"Of all the places that we can save money, let's not go after commissaries," Mikulski said. "Let's keep their doors open to provide low-cost, healthy food to our service members and their families until we're certain there's a better alternative."

The senators noted they had received support for the amendment from 40 outside organizations.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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