A special House panel on military quality of life issues plans to spend the next year analyzing service member pay issues with an eye towards significant financial boosts for junior enlisted troops in 2025, according to the congressman tapped to lead the effort.
Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a retired Air Force brigadier general, was announced last week as the lawmaker who will head up the House Armed Services Committee’s new military quality of life panel. Bacon said military pay issues will be at the forefront of its work over the next year.
“When you have junior enlisted people on food stamps, we can’t tolerate that,” he said in an interview with Military Times. “We’ve got to first of all identify what is the problem, find what ranks are struggling and get some data on some courses of action to recommend to the committee.
“And we know military housing needs some work, and also medical care. We want to look at other issues like the long waits and daycare. And we want to figure out how we can better help our [military] spouses get jobs quickly.”
Bacon said the effort is designed to look deeper into specific issues of pay, housing and benefits than the established military personnel subcommittee does in its regular work.
Because of the schedule surrounding the annual defense authorization bill work done by the committee, most hearings by the personnel subcommittee — and other armed services subcommittees — are held in the spring and turned into legislative proposals by early summer. The balance of the year is usually left to negotiations to get the measure passed through Congress.
Bacon said he wants to hold hearings throughout this summer and fall — “two a week is my goal” — that will keep focus on the issue and help guide a host of pay and benefits changes for troops in the fiscal 2025 NDAA, which will be crafted by lawmakers in spring 2024.
Military pay issues have come into focus over the last year, even after lawmakers approved service members’ largest annual pay raise in 20 years as part of fiscal 2023 budget plans.
The 4.6% pay boost that went into effect at the start of January translated into about $1,300 more in take-home pay for junior enlisted troops.
But an enlisted service member with less than four years in the ranks generally makes about $30,000 or less in basic pay, a figure that some outside advocates have noted makes it difficult to support a young family.
The federal formula for the 2024 military pay raise calls for a 5.2% boost, but lawmakers have questioned whether that target is high enough to deal with inflation costs for items like groceries and fuel.
Compounding the financial problems for troops is the difficulty military spouses often face in finding jobs while dealing with frequent relocation.
In 2019, the Department of Agriculture reported that about 22,000 service members used food stamp programs to supplement their income. Bacon said quantifying just how much financial stress those military families are under will be the primary focus of his panel.
“There are different ways to go at this,” he said. “We could go into the Basic Allowance for Subsistence and raise that up for certain ranks. Or we could just change the pay scale for all E-6s and below. ... So, my goal is to put different options on the floor, study them, and then as a committee pick what we think is the best way forward.”
Earlier this year, the Defense Department began administering a new congressionally mandated allowance for low-income troops to address food insecurity issues. However, defense officials said they only expected a few hundred families to qualify for the help.
Bacon wants those efforts to go further. He anticipates his panel will start its hearings in late spring or early summer, as committee work on the authorization bill for fiscal 2024 wraps up. Panel members have not been named yet, but Bacon expects enthusiastic participation from both Republicans and Democrats.
“The area that we’re talking about is not contentious,” he said. “I think quality of life is a uniting thing. And I think we’re gonna have very smart and passionate Republicans and Democrats working together.”
The new Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee is expected to start holding its regular hearings beginning in February.
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.