WASHINGTON — The president's proposed 2.1 percent military pay raise will get close scrutiny from lawmakers already worried that troops' salary and benefits may not be generous enough to keep military families financially stable.
President Donald Trump recommended the raise in his federal budget proposal this week, matching the boost in military paychecks that servicemembers saw this January. If it becomes law, the raise will represent on the second time since 2010 that troops have received a boost of more than 2 percent.
Despite that, the raise is actually 0.3 percent below what many analysts expected. The expected raise in private sector wages has been pegged at 2.4 percent for 2018, and traditionally serves as the baseline for military pay raises.
But in recent years, the White House and Pentagon have pushed for lower pay hikes, arguing that the savings are needed to pay for other modernization and training priorities. The move has stoked fears among outside advocates of a growing pay disparity between civilian workers and troops.
"Seven of the past eight military pay raises fell below private-sector wage growth, creating a worrisome gap between military and civilian pay that threatens military retention," retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dana Atkins, CEO of the Military Officers Association of America, said in a statement this week.
Military officials said the 0.3 percent different in the pay raise proposals will save $200 million for the Defense Department next year, and $1.4 billion over the next five years.
The 2.1 percent pay raise translates into about a $600 annual boost from 2017 pay for younger enlisted ranks, and about $950 a year for more senior enlisted and junior officers. A mid-career officer will see roughly $1,700 a year extra under that plan.
The 0.3 percent difference translates into about $85 lost a year for the junior enlisted, $130 for the senior enlisted and junior officers, and $240 for mid-career officers.
But advocates and a number of lawmakers have argued that those amounts represent significant financial losses for military families already saddled with unexpected expenses from deployments, frequent moves and demanding schedules.
This week, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. — who chairs the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee which oversees pay raise legislation — said he still has concerns that small trims in troops’ pay in recent years are having a troublesome cumulative effect.
"We’ve got to do something," he said. "Our men and women are losing ground just based on the cost of living. We’ve got to find a way to make up that ground."
When asked if that mean a larger pay raise, Tillis said the idea is under consideration. "We just have to figure out how to pay for it."
Tillis’ counterpart across Capitol Hill, House Armed Services personnel subcommittee chairman Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said he is still reviewing the proposal and would not comment on the possibility of changing Trump’s pay raise plan.
But House defense planners in recent years have been quick to reject the lower-than-civilians pay raise, and successfully lobbied for a pay plus-up in last year’s annual defense authorization act.
The pay raise issue is expected to be a key fight for lawmakers in the weeks to come. Both House and Senate leaders are hopeful they can finish their respective drafts of the fiscal 2018 defense budget before the end of July, and work on compromise legislation through the fall.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.