Lawmakers want to be part of the process of deciding whether commissaries and exchanges should be consolidated into one defense resale system ... before defense officials make a decision on their own.

An amendment introduced by Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., and included in the House Armed Services Committee’s version of the 2019 defense authorization bill, requires DoD to conduct a study on whether it’s feasible to consolidate the Defense Commissary Agency, Army and Air Force Exchange Service, Navy Exchange Service Command and the Marine Corps Exchange. The next step for the bill will be a vote by the full House.

Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general, said the amendment is designed to make the commissaries and exchanges more efficient, while still preserving the benefits for service members and their families. But that should be done with lawmaker input, he noted in a statement provided to Military Times.

“Congress has an obligation to accomplish this deliberately with the Department of Defense and military services to ensure this is a consultative and inclusive process of reform, while eliminating waste and unnecessary costs,” he said. “I look forward to working with the Department to certify that this possible consolidation is done the right way and these benefits are maintained.”

The amendment calls for DoD to submit a report to the congressional defense committees no later than Jan. 1, 2019, with, among other things, a financial assessment, a business case analysis, and “organizational, operational, and business model integration plans” for consolidating the commissary and exchange systems.

It would also prohibit DoD from using taxpayer funds for the purpose of consolidating the retail entities.

DoD has been working on plans for a task force to delve into the financial feasibility of a consolidation, and to develop organizational and operational plans for “above-the-store” structures of the commissaries and exchanges. Plans to stand up that task force on May 1 have been pushed back to July. A memorandum establishing that task force is still in draft form.

Pentagon plans call for a “phased approach” to proposed consolidation, per a previous version of the draft memo. Officials already have prepared a legislative proposal for consolidating the stores, a move that would require a change in law.

But lawmakers “want to ensure it’s done ... in a cooperative way with Congress, partnering with DoD from the very beginning,” a congressional aide said, and ensuring that the consequences are fully considered.

Lawmakers are “really concerned that the benefits be preserved,” the aide said.

It’s also become evident to Congress that DoD is already working on the consolidation.

“The fear is that DoD has already worked out the answer to the equation,” the aide said. “We believe there needs to be more of a participative process. ... There’s a lot to consider here.

“Pump the brakes a little bit. Let’s start this process working as a team from the beginning.”

For years, some in the Pentagon have targeted the $1.3 billion in taxpayer dollars the commissary system gets each year to operate the stores, attempting to reduce the amount of taxpayer dollars going to the benefit and redirect them to other needs of the military, especially during times of budget cuts and sequestration.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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