WASHINGTON — House lawmakers want White House officials to either stop cutting back on military pay raises or change the federal rules governing how those rates are set.

Next week, members of the House Armed Services Committee are expected to approve a $640 billion defense authorization plan which includes a 2.4 percent pay raise for troops starting next January. That's 0.3 percentage points above what the White House proposed in its budget plan last month.

On Thursday, committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, highlighted the bigger raise as "number one on my list" of important defense provisions and noted that the 2.4 percent is what service members and their families are "entitled."

This year's Pentagon budget proposal is the fifth in a row where military planners have recommended a raise below the Employment Cost Index, the expected rise in private sector wages and the statutory standard for troop's paycheck hikes.

Last year was the first time in that stretch that lawmakers overrode the president's smaller pay hike request, arguing that years of trims had raised concerns about growing wage inequality between the military and private sector.

Thornberry said he was disappointed to see the new administration follow the same pattern this year.

"This administration did what the previous administration has done, which was to knock that down," he said.

"If we need to change the formula, maybe we need to change the formula. But the way the formula is, it's based on economic indicators. If we're going to try and keep pay competitive, we ought to follow the formula."

Outside advocates have argued that for years, saying that even small trims to pay raises risk recruiting and retention problems in the future.

But Pentagon leaders have said the smaller raises can create significant savings for the military, which can be directed to other top personnel priorities like training and readiness. The proposed 2.1 percent raise is expected to save the department $200 million next year and $1.4 billion over the next five years when compared to the 2.4 percent figure.

Earlier this month, Defense Secretary James Mattis called current military wages "competitive" and said he is focused on finding the right balance for the defense budget.

"For the enlisted ranks, we probably have a better benefits package than most places," he told lawmakers during a Senate hearing. "Not all of them. There are some out in Silicon Valley that can probably beat us hands down. But when you look across the United States, we’re drawing in very high quality people because we are competitive."

Dana Atkins, president of the Military Officers Association of America, took exception to that analysis.

"When it comes to the pay raise, his assessment of what constitutes "competitive" may be correct for the youngest enlistee who faces the prospects of a minimum wage or something close to it," he said.

"However, for those currently serving among the other ranks, the difference of 0.3 percent and its cumulative effect starts to matter. It matters even more for those about to retire. For all those continuing to serve, we owe them the pay they deserve at least comparable with their civilian counterparts."

MOAA officials estimate the gap between military and civilian pay currently sits around 3 percent.

If either pay raise becomes law, it will be only the second time since 2010 that troops have received a boost of more than 2 percent. The 2.1 percent mark translates roughly into $600 more per year for most junior enlisted troops and another $1,400 for younger officers.

The 0.3 percentage point 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.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee are expected to unveil their pay raise preferences next Tuesday. Congressional staff is expected to work through the summer on the budget issues, with a final plan not likely before the end of the year.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

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.

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