The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee is "concerned" about Pentagon plans for a lower-than-expected military pay raise in 2017 and said lawmakers need to make sure that defense budgeting isn't targeting troops' wallets.
"Base pay is really important. It's a big deal," Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, told reporters at a press advance a day before military officials were scheduled to release fiscal 2017 budget details.
"If the Pentagon comes and says 'we want to do this, this and this' for personnel, but then they take away on the base pay, or add fees, how does all that shake out? That's what we need to watch."
Thornberry's comments came in response to reports that next year's budget request will include a 1.6 percent pay raise for troops in 2017.
That's up just slightly from the 1.3 percent increase they received for 2016, but only half the anticipated growth in private sector wages for next year, estimated at 3.2 percent by the Congressional Budget Office.
If approved, the 2017 pay hike will mark the fourth consecutive year that military salary increases have not kept pace with the private sector. Outside advocates have warned the trend could lead to a significant gap between military and civilian pay, making recruiting and retention more difficult.
In recent years, members of the House Armed Services Committee have publicly backed larger pay raises for troops, but often leave the issue unaddressed in the final draft of their annual authorization legislation. Senate leaders have typically deferred to White House pay raise requests.
Thornberry would not say what he thinks the 2017 raise should be, but did say he has not been in favor of the recent trend from Pentagon planners to trim into personnell accounts to find savings.
"For however many years, they have asked us to increase fees and copays, on Tricare for example. They asked to cut housing allowances and other things that would basically take money out of the pockets of servicemembers," he said.
"We have to weigh all of it together, pay and benefits as a whole package, not just this, this or this."
For an E-4 with four years of service, the difference between the 1.6 percent pay raise and the 3.2 percent private-sector estimate would total about $408 a year. For an O-4 with 12 years, it would be about $1,105.
Thornberry also expressed concerns about a flurry of recent sweeping Pentagon policy reforms — including opening combat roles for women and allowing Tricare to cover hormone therapy for transgender individuals — and how those moves will impact the budget and readiness.
He said lawmakers will step up their oversight work on those issues in coming months, to look at the immediate and long-term effects of the changes.
"The focus of Congress is on the capability to get the mission done. That's what counts," he said.
"I don't believe the military should be an experimental laboratory for social issues, but I also believe you focus on getting the job done, protecting the country, and don't worry so much about a person's color, gender, whatever it is. As long as they can do the job, that's what counts."
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.