Military Times

Senators defeat commissary privatization test — for now

Note: This article was updated June 8 to correct the vote count and to add senators' comments after the amendment was passed.

Senators moved today Tuesday to stall an effort to privatize commissaries.

In a 70-2628 vote of 70 to 28, senators voted to defeat a proposal by the Senate Armed Services Committee to conduct privatization pilot programs at commissaries at five major installations, similar to what that committee proposed last year.

After the committee's effort last year to launch privatization, lawmakers included a provision in the defense policy bill requiring defense officials to conduct a study to determine the costs and benefits of privatization. The study would be evaluated by the Government Accountability Office would evaluate the study. Because that process has not been completed, senators objected to a privatization pilot proposed by the committee again this year.

"Privatization at this point in time, when the impacts have not been fully assessed and evaluated by DoD and Congress, would jeopardize those benefits," said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla. "The strong, bipartisan vote in the Senate clearly demonstrates the importance of preserving the commissary and the benefits that it provides to our service men and women. I applaud my colleagues in the Senate for standing up for our troops, their families and our veterans.", voiced his concern about moving forward with privatization pilots before the study is finished, detailing the impact on the commissary benefit. Inhofe co-sponsored the amendment bill with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and 40 other senators  co-sponsors of the amendment to delay the privatization pilot until the study is completed.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., disagreed with the amendment and the delay, stating that a pilot program is the best way to evaluate the merits or drawbacks of the privatization concept. The goal is not just to maintain the commissary benefit, but to enhance it, he said.

In their fiscal 2017 version of the defense policy bill, senators had again included the proposal to test privatization.

In a statement about the passage of the amendment defeating that proposal for a privatization pilot, Mikulski said, "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." She noted that commissaries help military families stretch their budgets, and provide jobs in the military community.

"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."

Meanwhile, defense officials are gathering information for the congressionally required study, and on May 20, issued a request for information to help determine the feasibility of privatizing all or part of the commissary system, based on interest from the private sector. 

The request makes it clear it is not a solicitation for proposals, but states: "The information gained will assist in developing a plan to privatize all or portions of the Defense Commissary Agency and Defense Commissary System. ... The result of this market research will contribute to determining the method of procurement (if any)."

The Senate Armed Services Committee's version of the defense policy bill also introduces sweeping changes to commissary pricing, similar to what the House has agreed to. Commissaries would be allowed to move to a "variable pricing" system, creating a profit margin in order to reduce the amount of taxpayer dollars used to operate stores. Currently commissaries sell groceries "at cost," with no profit. A 5 percent surcharge is used to pay for construction and renovation of stores.

Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at

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