Pentagon & Congress

Senate plan would slash housing stipends for some dual military families

WASHINGTON — Dual military couples would see their family's housing stipends cut by hundreds of dollars a month under a plan approved by a Senate panel this week.

The proposal echoes recommendations from Army auditors released last year but ultimately rejected by Pentagon leadership and lawmakers. The plan still must survive potential opposition in the full Senate and House before it could go into effect.

But members of the Senate Armed Services Committee believe the idea could produce significant savings for the Defense Department, potentially freeing up funding for other program priorities.

Included in the committee's draft of the annual defense authorization bill is a provision that would allow dual military couples to only receive housing stipends at the "without dependents" rate, even if they have children.

Currently, dual military couples with children receive two housing stipends each month. The higher-ranking spouse gets the higher "with dependents" rate, while the lower-ranking spouse receives the same payout as troops without children.

The idea is that because those families are already receiving two housing payouts, the extra boost to the higher "with dependents" rate represents a too-generous benefit. The change is expected to save up to $52 million in fiscal 2018, and close to $300 million over the next five years.

Senate committee aides said that couples affected by the new rules would not see a change in their housing stipends until their next move, preventing potential problems with current rent agreements.

For an E-5 living outside Camp Pendleton in California, the change would mean roughly $450 less a month in payouts, roughly 10 percent of the family's monthly housing stipends. For an 0-3 living outside Fort Meade in Maryland, the change would mean about $140 less a month, around 3 percent of the family's housing assistance.

For years, Senate lawmakers have looked for potential changes to the military’s basic allowance for housing program, arguing that it far exceeds rental costs in most areas of the country.

Pentagon officials have argued that BAH is part of the military’s broader compensation package for military families, and should not be strictly tied to specific housing expenses.

Last year, the Senate Armed Services Committee proposed sweeping changes to the program, including refunding troops’ rent costs instead of awarding regional stipends and cutting payouts for service members who choose to live with a roommate. The plan was opposed by the Pentagon and ultimately dropped in conference negotiations.

This year’s proposal is less dramatic.

Defense Department officials estimate there are about 84,000 dual military couples across the four services, but it’s unclear exactly how many would be affected by the change. Couples without dependents and couples not stationed together would not see any reduction in their housing payouts.

The issue is one of a host of pay and benefits fights awaiting lawmakers in coming months, as the annual authorization measure winds through Congress. The Senate and House have also unveiled separate pay raise plans for troops (senators want a 2.1 percent raise, House members a 2.4 percent raise), a $200 million difference in cost that could affect a host of those decisions.

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

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