Delay military compensation reform, lawmakers and advocates say

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers and advocacy groups said this week that Defense Department requests for changing military compensation are premature, suggesting that any congressional action along these lines might be postponed for years.

To slow the growth in personnel costs in order to spend more money on combat readiness, DOD proposed the following when it submitted its fiscal 2015 budget request earlier this month:

  • Limit pay raises for active-duty servicemembers.
  • Reduce the basic housing allowance subsidy.
  • Reduce commissary subsidies.
  • Manage Tricare costs by increasing the cost-sharing burden for users.

But members of Congress on both sides of the aisle said the Pentagon should wait until the congressionally mandated Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, which is doing its own comprehensive review of military pay and benefits, presents its findings and recommendations to Congress before moving forward with its own plans.

“DOD is moving down a path of making changes prior to the information that is supposed to be collected by this commission,” Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., said during a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing Tuesday. “Why aren’t we waiting? Why aren’t we waiting for this group that’s going out and holding stakeholders meetings that’s supposed to come back with an objective view of how we need to modernize compensation and retirement before we start nickel and diming all these programs?”

“The proposal before us includes numerous reductions in pay and benefits, about which many — including myself — have serious concerns,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said while chairing a Senate Armed Forces subcommittee hearing Wednesday. “Each of these reductions is significant in and of itself, but I am extremely concerned about the cumulative effect on all of these cuts, especially on the junior members of the force and their families. These benefit proposals are being made, I would note, while the [MCRMC] has yet to finish its work.”

The MCRMC’s recommendations aren’t due to Congress until February 2015, which means any changes stemming from it probably wouldn’t go into effect until fiscal 2017 at the earliest. The Pentagon said compensation changes are needed much sooner than that to preserve combat capabilities in an era where fiscal constraints are necessitating trade-offs.

“We canceled seven combat training rotations this year. It’s really degrading the near-term readiness … So that friction that we’re creating, it takes us so long to build that back. We’ve got to make these nearer-term savings in the next couple of years. Otherwise, we’re going to dig ourselves into a hole that we’re just not going to be able to get out of well past [2020], and then if full sequestration goes into effect, we’re going to dig deeper and deeper,” Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, the ArmyDeputy Chief of Staff for personnel, told the House subcommittee.

“For the Marine Corps… reset is significant, based on our many years at war. Our equipment reset is critical. Our commandant recognized we can’t wait for a few more years. We must support these initiatives that have gone forward,” Sheryl Murray, Marine Corps assistant deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs, told House lawmakers.

If Congress rejects DOD’s proposals, the military will have to cut training and weapons buys by $2.1 billion next year and $31 billion over the next five years to stay under the defense budget caps imposed by Congress, according to Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale, who testified before the Senate subcommittee Wednesday.

Acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness Jessica Wright told lawmakers that DOD has finished its examination of the issues and doesn’t need to wait on the MCRMC to put forth its recommendations.

“We believe that we have the sufficient analysis and rigor to make the decisions on Tricare, BAH [and] commissaries,” she said at the Tuesday hearing.

DOD plans to wait for the MCRMC to finish its work before making any decisions about changing the retirement system, according to officials.

Congress has to approve any changes to pay and benefits that DOD or the MCRMC recommend before they would go into effect.

Representatives of military advocacy groups who testified in front of the Senate subcommittee Wednesday blasted DOD’s plans, saying they would hurt recruitment and retention and place an unfair financial burden on troops and their families. They said the MCRMC should be allowed to finish its work before any compensation reform steps are taken.

“The administration’s proposals to cut pay increases, reduce housing allowance, eliminate commissary savings, and increase healthcare coasts all at the same time pose significant risk to the financial wellbeing of military families,” Kathleen Moakler, government relations director for the National Military Family Association, told senators. “We can’t stress [enough] how important it is for the commission to finish their work [because] they are really doing due diligence to try to look at the entire compensation picture. [What] military families … didn’t expect was the volley of hits to their pocket book that were the budget proposals.”

Gillibrand urged military advocacy groups to keep pushing back against the Pentagon’s current proposals.

“This is going to be a very long debate, and so I urge constant advocacy in every state because I think people have to see the face and understand the family impacts of these types of decisions,” she told the panel members. “If it’s just a number it’s very easy to cut. [But] if it’s families and people and real lives, it is less easy to cut.”