Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee's personnel panel approved plans to roll back BAH and cap next year's military pay raise at 1 percent. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)
A Senate panel on Wednesday rejected Pentagon plans to cut commissary benefits and overhaul the Tricare system, all but ending defense officials’ hope to make those changes next year.
But members of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel did approve plans to roll back military housing stipends and cap next year’s military pay raise at 1 percent, moves that outside advocates have protested for months.
The mixed news is a minor victory for Pentagon budget planners, who saw nearly all of their pay and benefits trims rejected by House members in their version of the annual defense authorization bill earlier this month.
Top military officials have lobbied Congress for months to include dramatic compensation changes in the 2015 defense budget bill, in what they say is an effort to keep long-term personnel costs from overwhelming readiness and modernization accounts.
The Senate draft legislation dumps two of the most controversial proposed changes. Military officials had pushed to eliminate taxpayer funding for commissaries at most domestic bases, which would force store price increases of about 20 percent.
Subcommittee chairwoman Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said senators rejected that idea "because of the potential harm it might cause to our troops, retirees and their families — especially our lower enlisted troops."
Defense officials had also pushed to combine the three major existing Tricare plans — Prime, Standard and Extra — into a single system with a fee structure based on where beneficiaries get their medical care.
With neither House nor Senate support for those ideas, neither appears likely to become law this year.
But the pay raise and housing stipend issues likely will need to be resolved in conference committee. The Pentagon’s 2015 budget proposal had included plans to gradually drop housing allowance rates to cover only 95 percent of average rental costs, down from 100 percent.
Although House members opposed the idea, Senate panel members said they’ll back it for now, because of the pressure put on the defense budget by mandatory spending cuts instituted by Congress.
Senators also supported Defense Department plans to cap the 2015 military pay raise at 1 percent, instead of the projected 1.8 percent raise to keep pace with private sector wage growth.
For an E-3 with three years of service, the difference in the two pay plans will cost about $195 a year. For an E-7 with 10 years, it comes to $356. For an O-5 with 12 years of service, the lower pay plan will take away about $667 of annual salary.
House members said they backed the higher pay raise in principle, but they included no specific language in their version of the budget bill that would prevent the White House from mandating a 1 percent raise.
Gillibrand said she hopes to find ways to undo the housing cut and lower pay raise when the authorization bill comes up for consideration by the full Senate later this summer.
The House is expected to finalize its version of the bill this week.