Military Benefits

Senators strike out against BAH changes

Lawmakers are pushing back against a Senate proposal to overhaul military housing allowances, calling it an "ill-considered" plan they hope will be abandoned in the next few months.

On Thursday, 18 senators sent a letter to the heads of the House and Senate Armed Services committees asking for the plan to be stripped from the final draft of the annual defense authorization bill. Conference negotiations on that measure started this week.

"We believe more thorough and thoughtful consideration is required before any such reforms are arbitrarily adopted," the letter stated. "We simply cannot stand behind provisions that directly penalize dual-military families, women and our most junior members."

At issue is language approved by the Senate last month which would replace troops' flat-rate, ZIP-code-based housing stipends with the exact costs of individuals' rent. The goal is to end the practice of troops pocketing extra cash by finding off-base housing below the area's stipend rate.

In addition, dual-military couples would see their Basic Allowance for Housing checks cut in half, to prevent each service member from receiving extra housing payouts. Troops who room with friends would see their individual stipends adjusted to cover only their actual living costs.

Defense officials and outside advocates have decried the proposal, saying that it unnecessarily complicates the system and hurts the military's overall compensation package.

The 18 senators who raised objections — several of whom serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee — said they also worry the change could end up costing the services money instead of saving funds, because of unforeseen bureaucratic issues.

"Adequate research, planning and understanding is required before such sweeping changes can be responsibly advanced," they wrote.

Supporters say the new system would be similar to how the military's Overseas Housing Allowance is handled, and downplayed fears of more red tape and confusion for troops.

House lawmakers did not include any such proposal in their authorization bill draft. On Friday, House Armed Services personnel subcommittee Chairman Joe Heck, R-Nev., said no such sweeping reforms were part of his members' planning discussions.

"You didn't see that in the House bill," he said. "There is not an overwhelming urge on that from our members. We thought we had dealt with that issue already last year."

In the last defense authorization bill, Congress approved a five-year scaling back of housing allowances to cover only 95 percent of regional rent costs. Advocates blasted that change as well, but Defense Department officials called the plan a critical cost-saving move to help keep readiness and modernization accounts solvent.

Heck would not predict what will happen to the Senate's BAH overhaul in the upcoming negotiations, but did emphasize that House lawmakers are concerned about the increasing pressure years of pay and benefits trims have put on troops' finances.

House and Senate leaders are hopeful most of those negotiations will take place between committee staffs over the next two months, while lawmakers are back home for an extended summer recess to deal with issues leading up to the November elections.

The authorization bill has been signed into law for 53 consecutive years. Heck and other committee leaders said they are confident they can reach a similar compromise measure sometime before the new congressional session starts in January.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

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