Military families would get some extra flexibility during permanent change-of-station moves — allowing them to leave up to six months before or after the service member's reporting date to the next installation — under a bipartisan bill introduced Tuesday in the Senate.
The proposal's key component: It would allow families to continue receiving their housing allowance at the "with dependents" rate for their location, while the service members either would be given temporary unaccompanied housing or compensation at their location.
The plan, called the Military Family Stability Act of 2015, would help ease some of the burden for working spouses and for families with children in school, said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who introduced the bill along with cosponsors Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.
Blunt said the proposed legislation is aimed at creating a framework to help military families be more stable, especially in light of the many spouses who are pursuing their own careers alongside their service members.
"Military families confront challenges other families may not have to ever face," Gillibrand said, adding that the plan would help spouses wrap up their work while finding new employment, and allow students to finish out semesters.
The legislation, she said, "would relieve a major burden for our families."
Some of the services have different policies to help with some aspects of the destabilizing factors associated with relocation, but there is no force-wide standard focusing specifically on how those factors affect military spouses and children, according to a fact sheet from the lawmakers.
Blunt said the cost of the legislation has not yet been calculated by the Congressional Budget Office. The main cost will be the housing expenses for the service member until the family is reunited, he said.
The following families would be eligible:
- The spouse is employed, or enrolled in a degree, certificate or license-granting program, at the beginning of the covered relocation period.
- The service member and spouse have one or more children in school.
- The spouse or children are covered under the Exceptional Family Member Program.
- The service member or spouse is caring for an immediate family member with a chronic or long-term illness.
- The service member is undergoing a PCS as an individual augmentee or other deployment arrangement.
In addition, families with other unique needs could receive exceptions granted by military commanders.
The proposal comes at a time when lawmakers have agreed to across-the-board reductions in the Basic Allowance for Housing. Congress has agreed to a Defense Department request to reduce BAH over the next few years to a level that covers only 95 percent of a service member's actual costs, rather than the traditional 100 percent. The first phase of that plan, a 1 percentage point reduction, has already taken effect.
Asked how that might be reconciled in the context of the new legislation, Gillibrand acknowledged that the BAH reduction plan "is one of the cuts that, frankly, not all of us support."
She said the arbitrary federal budget caps known as sequestration are "hollowing out our military. "The cuts that service members have had to accept are very, very, very harmful and difficult and it particularly affects the more junior members. We're trying to restore benefits as much as we can."
Elizabeth O'Brien, who was living out her dream coaching college basketball when she met her Army husband, noted that not all families would need to use this benefit; in her family's case, she said they probably would have used it once in their nine moves, had it been available.
When her husband was reassigned to the Washington, D.C., area, and scheduled to report in May 2014, she said they could not afford to stay in Germany and pay for housing on the German economy and pay for housing for her husband in Washington.
So although their children's German school's academic year ended in July, they had to make the "heartbreaking" move of pulling their children out of the school in April 2014, she said.
"If the Military Family Stability Act had existed 18 months ago, they would have been able to finish the school year."
If the proposal becomes law, she said, "military families will no longer have to reach into their own pockets to support their dreams."
Mia Reisweber said delays in her Army husband's move forced them to use savings to move her early from Hawaii to Missouri. They packed their household goods and put them in storage in Hawaii because they couldn't afford to make rent payments in two places.
Knowing they'd be moving to Missouri, she had applied for and been accepted into a doctoral program in higher education, and also had an appointment to teach writing composition at Missouri University of Science and Technology. The couple was supposed to move in May 2014, but when that had not happened by July, "I was getting nervous," she said.
The couple tried every avenue to get approval for her to leave early, to no avail. "At one point, someone even joked that I could get to Missouri tomorrow if my husband and I were requesting a divorce, because there's a process for that," she said.
They flew to Missouri to find a rental house, and her husband then returned to Hawaii, where he slept on a friend's couch for more than a month. She made do in their new home without their household goods.
"If we had waited until September, I would have arrived too late to take classes or to teach," she said.
"My husband and I are equal partners in both our marriage and our professional career ambitions," she said. "I feel, however, that the military is indifferent in their acknowledgment of me as a professional, and they are failing to acknowledge the strain and instability burdening military families who must move every two to three years."
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.