Robert Gates is the first secretary of defense to live in military housing, an old but spacious 19th century home in a secure Navy compound in the District of Columbia, an easy commute from the Pentagon.

Gates also could be the last defense chief to live there, practical as it is, unless Congress amends a law that prescribes how much a civilian must pay to lease base housing. As Gates has learned, it’s no sweetheart deal.

The defense chief is paying $6,506.83 a month to rent his quarters. That greatly exceeds what his neighbor, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, pays. To live in his quarters in the same compound, Mullen forfeits only his monthly basic allowance for housing, which for an admiral assigned to Washington, D.C., is $2,409 a month.

Gates receives no tax-free allowance, or stipend of any kind, to cover his housing payments. So his rent of $78,082 a year gobbles up 40 percent of his Cabinet salary of $191,300.

Defense officials believe this is unfair and are seeking legislative relief, not only for their current boss but for future defense secretaries who might choose to live in the well-guarded compound with its high fences, guard gates and sophisticated surveillance and communication gear.

The request for rental relief is among a packet of legislative proposals that the department submitted to Congress two weeks ago.

Current law requires that when a civilian official is permitted to lease base housing — which occurs infrequently — for security reasons or because no adequate off-base housing is available, the military must charge rent based on the fair market value of similar housing found off base.

The Army Corps of Engineers assessed the value of the home Gates now occupies and concluded it would cost just over $6,500 to rent if located outside the gate in the high-priced Washington area.

Gates doesn’t want to avoid paying rent altogether. But the department asks that the law be changed so the secretary pays rent equal to what a general or admiral forfeits in housing allowances plus 5 percent.

If Congress agrees, Gatess monthly rent could fall to $2,530, a drop of almost $4,000 a month. It’s viewed as a reasonable result both for the government and the secretary, according an analysis of the initiative prepared for lawmakers.

Early retirementReservists and National Guard personnel mobilized for war and national emergencies for periods of 90 days or longer since Sept. 11, 2001, could see their age 60 threshold for receiving reserve retirement lowered under a bill introduced Wednesday by 10 Republican and Democratic senators.

“The bill we are introducing today enhances what we did in last year’s defense bill and rewards our men and women who have deployed since our nation was attacked,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.

Congress voted a compromise last year that allows only reserve component members deployed for 90 days or more after Jan. 28 to earn the right to retire earlier than age 60.

Chambliss, who led the effort to reduce reserve retirement age by tying the initiative to current and future wartime deployments, now joins with colleagues to try to have early-retirement credit applied retroactively to more than 600,000 reservists and Guard members who deployed since 9/11.

Many of them have been unhappy to learn they were left out of last year’s action. Congress only found money enough in the FY 2008 defense budget to apply the early-retirement provision to deployment time served after the 2008 defense authorization bill was signed.

For every 90 consecutive days spent mobilized, reservists will see the traditional age 60 start for annuities reduced by three months. Therefore a reservist eligible to retire who mobilized for a year after Jan. 28 can begin to draw retired pay at age 59.

Given the price tag, Chambliss suggested, the goal of the new bill, called the National Guard and Reserve Retired Pay Equity Act of 2008, to cover all 600,000 reservists deployed since 9/11, might not be reached this year.

“At the end of the day, we’re not likely to get it all in one year,” he said. “We’re probably going to have to get it in increments. But those folks who went to Iraq [or Afghanistan] from 2001 through 2007 will ultimately be entitled to the benefits of this provision.”

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