Robert M. Gates is the first secretary of defense to live in military housing, an old but spacious 19th century home in a secure Navy compound in the District of Columbia.
Gates also could be the last defense chief to live there, practical as it is, unless Congress amends a law that prescribes how much a civilian must pay to lease base housing.
As Gates has learned, it’s no sweetheart deal.
The defense chief is paying $6,506.83 a month to rent his quarters. That greatly exceeds what his neighbor, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, pays. To live in his quarters in the same compound, Mullen forfeits only his monthly basic allowance for housing, which for an admiral assigned to Washington D.C. is $2,409 a month.
Gates receives no tax-free allowance, or stipend of any kind, to cover his housing payments. So his rent of $78,082 a year gobbles up 40 percent of his cabinet salary of $191,300.
Defense officials believe this is unfair and are seeking legislative relief, not only for their current boss but for future defense secretaries who might choose to live in the well-guarded compound with its high fences, guard gates and sophisticated surveillance and communication gear.
The request for rental relief is among a packet of legislative proposals the department submitted to Congress two weeks ago.
Current law requires that when a civilian official is permitted to lease base housing, which occurs infrequently for security reasons or because no adequate off-base housing is available, the military must charge rent based on the fair market value of similar housing found off base.
The Army Corps of Engineers assessed the value of the home Gates now occupies and concluded it would cost just over $6,500 to rent if located outside the gate in the high-priced D.C. area.
Gates doesn’t want to avoid paying rent altogether. But the department asks that the law be changed so the secretary pays rent equal to what a general or admiral forfeits in housing allowances plus 5 percent.
If Congress agrees, Gate’s monthly rent could fall to $2,530, a drop of almost $4,000 a month. It’s viewed as a reasonable result both for the government and the secretary, according to an analysis of the initiative prepared for lawmakers.
Housing the secretary “on a secure military installation is far more cost-effective than installing, maintaining, and protecting sensitive Department of Defense equipment along with secure information facilities, and security and detection systems in private residences,” the department explains. Using such housing “also substantially reduces the logistics, public disruptions and costs associated with protecting the secretary.”
Gates hasn’t complained publicly about his rent, and it is not the first financial sacrifice he has made to serve as defense secretary. Gates’ salary was more than $750,000, in 2005, as president of Texas A&M University, a job he said he loved. He gave it up, as well as lucrative income from public speeches, when he replaced Donald Rumsfeld in December 2006.
Gates, 64, entered the intelligence community as a junior Air Force officer. He capped a long civilian career in the CIA when he became Director of the Central Intelligence in 1991 for then-President George H. W. Bush.
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org