The U.S. Capitol building with red tulips.

The U.S. Capitol as seen on March 21, 2024. (Gianna Gronowski/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday night advanced a defense policy bill that would give a nearly 20% pay raise to junior enlisted service members and pour investments into improving the quality of life of all troops.

The legislation was approved in a 57-1 vote and will be debated next by the full House. The Senate Armed Services Committee has yet to release its version of the bill, but members have not indicated they will follow the House in raising pay for troops ranked E-4 and lower.

All service members are slated to receive a 4.5% pay raise under the White House’s $895 billion proposal for the defense budget. The House committee is proposing a 15% pay hike on top of that for junior troops, some of whom make less than $25,000 in basic pay.

The House bill’s focus on addressing the military’s shortfalls in compensation, as well as housing, health care and other issues, is reflected in its title: the Servicemember Quality of Life Improvement and National Defense Authorization Act.

“We did that to underscore the tremendous gains this bill makes toward improving the quality of life for our service members and their families,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the committee chairman.

The National Defense Authorization Act is an annual must-pass bill that details funding levels and policies for the Pentagon. An accompanying appropriations bill funds the legislation.

The House panel on Wednesday touted the provisions that it believes will improve life and service in the military.

One measure will restore coverage of the basic allowance for housing from 95% of calculated costs back to 100%, as it was from 2005 to 2016. Another will raise the threshold for the basic needs allowance to 200% of federal poverty guidelines.

Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., singled out the importance of the bill’s $17.5 billion investment in military construction projects, including $1.15 billion to improve housing conditions.

“The condition of our barracks in particular is shocking,” he said. “It’s unacceptable that this committee, frankly, has to step in to push the Pentagon to fix this problem, but that’s what we’re going to do. We have to provide safe barracks and housing and put our service members’ welfare first.”

A government watchdog last year found mold and mildew, sewage overflow, broken windows and locks, rodent infestations and other hazardous living conditions across 10 installations in the United States.

The authorization bill for the first time requires each military department to implement an electronic management system to track how funds are spent and keep up-to-date records of facility conditions, according to Waltz, a former Green Beret.

Other efforts to improve quality of life include a permanent authorization of a fellowship program for military spouses searching for employment, the expansion of access to specialty health care providers and the full funding of child care fee assistance programs to eliminate fee assistance waitlists.

Service members and families moving to some overseas locations for a permanent change of station would be allowed to ship and store up to two privately owned vehicles under the legislation. Current regulations typically cover the cost of one vehicle per household.

More broadly, the bill continues to invest in efforts to counter China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and violent extremist groups. It notably rejects the Navy’s proposal to procure one Virginia-class submarine, requiring the sea service to procure two as it has the previous 13 years.

News of the cut was met with criticism from many lawmakers and made headlines in Australia, which is set to buy three nuclear-powered, Virginia-class submarines from the U.S. through a security partnership that seeks to deter Chinese aggression.

The House panel also refused to sanction the Navy’s plan to retire two guided-missile cruisers before they reached the end of their service life.

“Our message must be clear: the United States Navy will remain the most powerful maritime force the world has ever seen,” said Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss.

Russia’s war in Ukraine made a direct impact on the committee’s priorities for the Pentagon. The bill requires the Army to establish a drone corps as a basic branch of the service to serve as a command center for all drone-related activities.

“This [legislation] is reflective of the battlefield changes that are occurring in real time on the Ukraine battlefield,” said Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va. “The rise of electronic warfare and drone warfare are clear hallmarks of this conflict.”

The authorization bill, which was released last week, grew larger Wednesday as members spent hours voting on more than 700 amendments.

Members agreed to weaken a controversial Pentagon plan to transfer some Air National Guard personnel into the Space Force by giving state governors a say in such changes. Other approved amendments make registration for the selective service automatic and require commissioned officers to receive training on the Constitution.

The Republican-led committee also narrowly agreed, over strong Democrat opposition, to ban affirmative action at the military service academies. The Supreme Court had excluded the academies from a ruling last year that ended race-conscious college admissions.

The Senate Armed Services Committee will discuss its version of the defense legislation next month. Both chambers will then come together to negotiate the final bill, which typically passes Congress by the end of the year. Twitter: @svetashko

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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