A bipartisan group of 31 senators has introduced legislation that would block the privatization of commissaries at five installations until a study has been completed that would assess the impact.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., vice chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, introduced the amendment, which is co-sponsored by another 29 senators. They're trying to stop a provision in the Senate Armed Services Committee's version of the fiscal 2017 defense authorization bill which would require DoD to begin turning over operation of commissaries to private companies.
The committee's privatization provision was similar to one that was introduced last year to conduct the tests.
"Our service members have repeatedly told me and Congress the importance of their commissary benefit, asking us to protect access to and savings at their commissaries," Inhofe said in a statement about the amendment. "Last year, my Senate colleagues and I fought to block language to privatize military commissaries until a study can take place to assess the impacts, costs and benefits of such drastic action. That study is currently underway, and once it is completed, Congress needs time to thoroughly review and consider the recommendations.
"This is why our bipartisan amendment to strike Senate language that, once again, prematurely sets into motion privatization is critical and should be given a vote during the [National Defense Authorization Act] debate." That debate starts soon, and the fight against the privatization efforts is not expected to be easy. Last year senators fought to get their amendment considered.
Inhofe noted that 41 organizations, most of which are veteran and military advocacy organizations, have oppose the language in the Armed Services Committee's bill.
"I'm fighting to protect our commissaries because service members and their families deserve the benefits they've earned and a government on their side," Mikulski said in the statement. "Commissaries feed our troops. They help military families stretch their budgets, and they provide jobs to military spouses, teens old enough to work, and military retirees. And commissaries are the military's most popular earned benefit.
"With this bipartisan amendment, we will keep commissary doors open to provide low-cost, healthy food to our service members and their families until we're certain there's a better alternative."
"Commissaries are an important benefit for members of our military, saving the typical family thousands of dollars per year in groceries," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. "We owe it to our service members, veterans, and their families to prevent further closures or privatization of these vital facilities until the issue can be fully studied."
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said "it is bewildering why some senators would rush to privatize a service so essential to our military families, who often struggle to make ends meet.
"My preference is that we focus our attention on how to reward their service to our country with better compensation, more support at home and overseas, and that we do all we can to keep their daily expenses to a minimum."
Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.