Bill lessens pay gap for troops

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

A House panel has voted to give the military a 1.9 percent pay raise next January. That would be a half percentage point higher than what the Obama administration wanted simply to match private sector wage growth.

The House armed services subcommittee on military personnel panel also endorsed increases next year in hostile fire pay and family separation allowance, enough to restore the relative value of these payments to what they were in 2004 when they last were adjusted.

But the same panel, marking up the personnel portion of the fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill Wednesday, signaled the money tap is off for expanding entitlements to reserve personnel, disabled retirees or widows.

Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., said the extra half percent raise will continue to narrow a pay gap with civilian peers, which stood at 13.5 percent in 1999 but will be down to 1.9 percent in January.

Days earlier, outside pay experts told the Senate personnel subcommittee that the “gap” argument ignores the hefty gains made to military housing allowances over the last decade. Military pay, they said, already is very competitive, particularly in this distressed economy.

Support for one more extra bump in military pay was unanimous on the 14-member subcommittee. Rep. Joe Wilson (S.C.), ranking Republican, acknowledged “growing opposition” to adding an extra half percent “on the assertion that military pay now exceeds that of comparable civilian jobs. That’s a false comparison. I would challenge anyone to find a civilian job that has the same set of requirements and risks” as military personnel face.

As to the assertion that personnel costs are crowding out funds for other defense priorities — a case made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs — Wilson said the answer is bigger defense budgets, not “asking military personnel to take less.”

Obama has asked that these retirees be allowed to draw Concurrent Retirement and Disability Pay (CRDP), based on number of years served, plus their VA disability pay.

However, his budget request failed to earmark money to pay for this initiative with its estimated cost of $5.4 billion over its first 10 years. The House personnel subcommittee couldn’t find the money either. House budget rules — which admittedly are ignored when an issue is deemed important enough like the Post-9/11 GI Bill — only allows spending on new entitlements, such as concurrent receipt, if the cost can be paid by reducing some other mandatory or “direct spending” program. No offsets could be found for such purposes this year.

When the full committee takes up the bill later this month, details will become available on planned increases to hostile fire pay and family separation allowances. The House bill also would authorize TRICARE to extend health care coverage to dependent children out to age 26, and to restore housing allowances for dual military couples serving on sea duty.