Pentagon personnel budgeting is "nickel and diming our people to death," according to the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and he hopes an upcoming compensation review can restore some sanity to the debate.
"It's more helpful to step back and look at what sort of pay and benefits are working as we hoped they would, which ones are not effective, and (whether) this structure makes sense in being able to recruit and retain the people we need moving ahead," said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, in a breakfast roundtable with reporters Thursday.
The comments were the new chairman's latest shots at Pentagon planners, who he says too often dismiss lawmakers' concerns over budget priorities and accuse Congress of parochialism over national security.
The congressionally authorized Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission is scheduled to send the results of its 18-month review of military pay and benefits issues to Congress the first week of February.
Lawmakers and outside advocates have been heralding those findings as potentially forming the foundation for a radical overhaul of military personnel policies, at a time when Pentagon officials have complained that mounting costs for the troops' compensation and health care are eating into funding for training, weapons modernization and readiness.
Last year, House members opposed several pay-and-benefits trims favored by defense officials in their budget proposals. Eventually, lawmakers settled on a lower-than-expected 1 percent basic pay raise and trims in the rate of growth in housing allowances, but rejected an overhaul of Tricare offerings and a reduction in commissary benefits.
Thornberry said he's hopeful the commission report will help to stave off similar fights this year by starting a more constructive debate among Hill and Pentagon budget planners.
"I think the Pentagon intentionally puts things in the budget that they know Congress won't accept," he said. "So there is gamesmanship here."
The White House's defense budget proposal for fiscal 2016 is expected to be released Feb. 2, around the same time that the commission's report is expected to go public. Thornberry's committee will hold hearings on both in the days following, with an eye toward ensuring troops and their families are not bearing a disproportionate share of budget cuts.
"That's not fair to them," he said. "It's also not a good way have a coherent pay-and-benefits system."
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.