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House balks at slashing pay and benefits

Customers prepare to enter the commissary Feb. 27, 2014, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan.

WASHINGTON — House lawmakers on Wednesday crafting their version of the 2015 defense bill rejected proposed cuts to commissary, housing and medical benefits that the Department of Defense argued in March are key savings, needed to balance its shrinking budget.

Members of the House did not take up a proposed 1 percent military pay cap, but instead left that issue to the Senate, which is slated to open its debate on the defense bill and the proposed pay cap Tuesday.

The House Armed Services Committee will wrap up the subcommittee votes on its version of the National Defense Authorization Act on Thursday and move to the bill to committee next week for debate and a vote.

Many lawmakers are concerned cuts to pay and benefits could undermine national security. But the DOD and military leaders faced with steep funding reductions have argued the services need more leeway in making reductions to troop compensation as a way to preserve warfighting capabilities.

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who led the subcommittee vote Wednesday, said reductions in pay raises, Tricare health benefits and the DOD’s network of supermarkets erodes a “sacred trust” between troops and the public.

“It shouldn’t be a trade-off between whether we have a commissary or readiness and equipment,” Wilson said following a vote by the Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on military personnel.

Still, tough budget choices loom. Via the Budget Control Act of 2011, known as sequestration, lawmakers have ordered steep cuts in military spending in coming years — billions of dollars must be shaved, according to the law.

The DOD proposed budget for 2015 would cut servicemembers’ compensation by $2.1 billion next year and save $30 billion in pay and benefits over five years.

To get there, the department is proposing a 1 percent military pay raise cap, a reduction in commissary subsidies that would cut customer savings from 30 percent to 10 percent, decreases in housing allowances that would result in troops paying for a percentage of their residence and a consolidation of health care provider Tricare.

This week, the House subcommittees drafting the NDAA made no mention of the pay cap. Wilson said the omission means the lawmakers support the current 1.8 percent cap that exists under federal law.

The military personnel subcommittee draft of the bill would require that outside experts review the military commissary system and “identify efficiencies that could lead to cost savings without reducing military family benefits.”

An anonymous, random survey would also be conducted among servicemembers on pay and benefits such as housing allowances, bonuses, special pay, health care and retirement pay.

The ranking minority Democrat on the subcommittee, Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., said she supports the rejection of cuts to pay and benefits approved Wednesday.

“While I support not including in the mark the proposed legislative changes to the commissary system, the housing allowances reduction, and the health care changes proposed by the Department of Defense, I do believe that we need to begin a conversation to address these issues,” she said in a released statement.

Davis said the debate needs to include input from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, which has been mandated by Congress to conduct a comprehensive review of pay and benefits and report back in February.

“These are difficult times, particularly with sequestration still in effect for the department, hard decisions will need to be made in order to protect and sustain the all-volunteer force into the future,” Davis said. “Otherwise, it will only lead to more end-strength reductions and readiness challenges for the force.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

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