Military advocates are baffled over a Senate plan to overhaul troops' housing stipends, saying the change appears unneeded and potentially crippling to family finances.
"We view Basic Allowance for Housing as an earned benefit, and we don't agree with trying to reduce that benefit," said Michael Barron, deputy director of government relations at the Military Officers Association of America. "This is not just frivolous money being spent by troops."
Included in the Senate Armed Services Committee's draft of the annual defense authorization bill are plans to overhaul how BAH is paid out troops. Instead of flat fees based on rank and ZIP code, the new system would refund only what troops pay out in rent and utilities costs, stopping troops from pocketing leftover stipends if they find cheaper housing.
The Defense Department opposes the idea, calling the housing stipends part of troops' larger compensation package. But Senate officials say the change could save the department tens of millions while still providing adequate housing benefits for troops.
Both Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, have amendments which would strip the BAH changes out of the measure when it reaches the Senate floor next week.
Outside critics support that move.
"If it isn't broke, don't try and fix it," said Kelly Hruska, government relations director for the National Military Family Association. "The [Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission] looked at this issue last year, and they found the system wasn't perfect, but it works."
Michael Little, director of legislative affairs for the Association of the United States Navy, said the Senate plan still has too many unanswered questions, such as how utilities costs will be calculated into the new housing stipend and how exactly the change will impact family finances.
"We should be trying to find ways to keep men and women interested in the military," he said. "But by putting restraints on them and taking away pay and benefits, we are making the military a place where morale is low and retention is even lower.
"Our government should want to find a way to make the military a career decision for more Americans. Cutting benefits will not do that."
House lawmakers did not include the change in their draft legislation. If the proposal passes the Senate, a conference committee with lawmakers from both chambers will have to work out a compromise in coming months.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.