In defense bill battle, military pay and benefits are casualties

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Military advocates lost on almost every big benefits fight they waged in the legislative run-up to the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill.

The legislation is still in limbo, awaiting a presidential veto that could end up scuttling nine months of Capitol Hill work on the annual military policy measure. But in the lobbying arena, Pentagon penny pinchers who pushed for trims in military personnel spending accounts already can declare victory, having swayed lawmakers to their side.

If the measure becomes law, troops would see growth in the Basic Allowance for Housing steadily shrink in coming years, to cover only 95 percent of average off-base housing costs. Tricare co-pays would rise on a host of prescriptions obtained through off-base retail pharmacies.

Troops are in line for a 1.3 percent pay raise in January, a full percentage point below expected growth this year in average private-sector wages — the third consecutive year that the military pay raise would fall below civilian levels.

Lawmakers also want defense officials to offer a plan in coming months to completely wean the military commissary and exchange systems off taxpayer funding, potentially leading to fewer discounts or offerings at the stores.

“Over the last 10 years, the (military) community has fought hard to increase benefits to catch troops up to the private sector,” said Bill Rausch, political director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Now, after all the battles we’ve won, we’re starting to see retreats. That’s concerning to us.”

House lawmakers had pushed against nearly all of those changes in their early draft of the authorization bill this spring, agreeing with advocates who argued that the compensation trims combined would drastically reduce military families’ purchasing power.

But Pentagon planners argued that the savings are needed to rein in personnel costs, and that troops would be able to accept reductions in some anticipated pays and benefits in exchange for better training and equipment support.

Senate negotiators — who had backed military officials in that stance in their early draft of the defense bill — held firm on the benefits trims during this summer’s conference committee with their House counterparts.

“The signal that sends is disappointing,” said Norb Ryan, president of the Military Officers Association of America.

“We’re on a trajectory here that could send the all-volunteer force into a ditch,” Ryan said, noting that lawmakers “have argued that each of these cuts in isolation wouldn’t be overwhelming, but we’re looking at three years of lower pay (raises) now. We had hoped to see the Senate align with the House, not the other way around.”

Those trims won’t become reality if President Obama follows through with a promised veto of the bill over an unrelated budget fight.

The White House has 10 days to veto the legislation once Congress finalizes the bill. Staffers are expected to send the measure across town early next week, starting that clock. If lawmakers can’t muster enough votes to override a veto, they would need to restart the authorization bill work all over again — possibly with different compensation changes.

But MOAA and other military advocacy groups have argued against a presidential veto, calling the legislation a critical policy measure that cannot be delayed. The measure has been signed into law in each of the last 53 years, and includes a host of other specialty pay and bonus reauthorizations.

“The fact is that we are still a nation at war, and this legislation is vital to fulfilling wartime requirements,” MOAA officials said in a statement. “There comes a time when this year’s legislative business must be completed, and remaining disagreements left to be addressed next year.”