House passes defense bill with biggest troop pay raise in years
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 2, 2016
WASHINGTON — The House on Friday passed an annual defense policy bill that includes the largest troop pay raise in six years and puts the brakes on an Army drawdown.
The vote means the $619 billion National Defense Authorization Act – along with the 2.1 percent raise and an order to keep 476,000 soldiers in the Army -- cleared its first legislative hurdle after being unveiled this week. Now, it is headed for a Senate vote next week and then must be signed by President Barack Obama.
The pay raise will kick in Jan. 1 if the bill is signed into law, despite an executive order by Obama in August to set raises at 1.6 percent in 2017 to save money. The Army had also recently announced a reduction in soldiers to cut costs amid tight defense budgets.
“It is time we give the troops and their families the pay raise they deserve,” said Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., a subcommittee chairman on the House Armed Services Committee.
The 34 opposing votes came mostly from Democrats.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, supported the bill but warned that the country spends more than the rest of the world on its military and will need to focus on domestic programs.
Military raises have been kept below the 2.1 percent called for in federal law and the average rate of increases for private sector wages since 2011 when defense spending began to dip after the height of the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Congress has passed defense budget caps in recent years amid pressure from fiscal hawks to reduce federal spending. The Obama administration said the lower troop pay raise would save $336 million in 2017.
The NDAA bill also calls for $3.2 billion for more servicemembers and to bolster military capabilities such as Marine Corps and Air Force aviation that lawmakers say are overstressed by reduced spending in recent years.
It freezes the Army’s effort to cull its end strength from 492,000 to 450,000 over three years to save $7 billion. Reserve forces would go up by 4,000 and the Marine Corps would get 3,000 more troops.
However, some of the spending might be on hold for months.
Republican lawmakers have decided to put off trying to pass the spending legislation that pays for new NDAA policies until the end of March so President-elect Donald Trump will have input on federal spending.
The military and federal government will be forced to run on current funding levels until then – legislation called a continuing resolution -- despite objections from the Pentagon.
“It saddens me that we would pass this bill and then pass a CR that underfunds the military,” said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, a subcommittee chairman on the Armed Services Committee.