House defense bills include big push to raise pay for junior military members

As the military continues to face serious recruiting challenges, the House's versions of its 2024 spending bills would raise military pay by more than 40 percen...

For the 2024 budget cycle, serious military recruiting problems appear to have put the House’s appropriations and authorization committees in a generous mood when it comes to  personnel spending.

Although all uniformed servicemembers are likely to see their biggest raise since the George W. Bush administration, the House’s legislation would give the military’s most junior members even larger increases, along with a host of other provisions meant to improve compensation and quality of life for lower-ranking enlistees.

All military members are expected to get a 5.2 percent pay increase next year: President Biden’s proposed budget and the House appropriations and authorization bills each agree on that figure, and that raise alone would be the biggest percentage increase uniformed members have seen since 2002.

But the current draft of the House’s Defense appropriations bill would give substantial additional salary bumps to most junior enlisted military members. Those raises are targeted mainly at new recruits: The rate for the E-1 paygrade, for example, would rise by an additional 36%, to $2,600 a month. E-2s would  get a more than 30% bump, to $2,800. Other paygrades up through E-6 would get smaller percentage increases.

Meanwhile, the House’s Armed Services Committee’s version of the 2024 defense authorization bill would create what lawmakers term an “economic conditions bonus.” That provision would not set a specific salary increase, but would give DoD new authorities to add additional monthly stipends to junior members of the armed forces at the department’s discretion.

The focus on the entry level of the military’s pay scale is somewhat in line with DoD’s current personnel picture: Retention is still very high, but recruiting remains a significant challenge for most services, especially the Army.

Army Secretary Christine Warmuth told reporters this week that recruiting remains a “dark cloud” on the horizon, and that the service is unlikely to meet its goal to recruit 65,000 new soldiers in 2023 — a figure she said had been a “stretch goal” all along.

“Last year we had a goal of 60,000 and we fell short by 15,000,” she said. “The numbers of May and early June contracts per day look good, but how much of that is about the traditionally-better recruiting season in summer? How much of that is about things we’ve done to help ourselves? Some of both, I think.”

Beyond basic pay, the House’s draft 2024 NDAA would make more compensation changes.

One provision would exclude troops’ basic allowance for housing from the baseline that determines whether they qualify for DoD’s new Basic Needs Allowance, making it much more likely that more members would get the monthly supplements. Those needs allowances are designed to make sure each service member’s household income is at least 130% of the federal poverty line.

Another provision would remove the requirement that DoD calculate junior members’ housing allowances based on annual local rent surveys. Since those surveys often lag behind actual housing prices, officials say the change would make it much easier for DoD to quickly increase the allowances in housing markets where rent costs are skyrocketing in any particular area in a given year.

“[This legislation] was developed in a bipartisan manner and includes member priorities focused on taking care of service members and their families to ensure they are prepared to carry out any mission they are called upon to execute, without any distraction,” said Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind), the chairman of the military personnel subcommittee. “In this year of the 50th anniversary of the all-volunteer force, this mark continues the development of focused policy that recruits, retains and provides for those that are willing to put service before self.”

The subcommittee’s draft provisions also try to address the military services’ shortages in on-base childcare.

One provision would boost the government’s share of child care funding by 15%. Another would expand an existing DoD pilot program that offers fee assistance for in-home child care to four more bases. Another would require DoD to set up a website so that military families can see the current waiting lists for all of the military’s child care centers.

“DoD operates the largest employer-sponsored child care program in the country, which is essential to overall military mission readiness, retention and recruitment,” said Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat. “Our service members and their families make considerable sacrifices for our nation. We must continue our commitment to them and their families.

Meanwhile, the Armed Services Committee is standing up a new temporary panel that’s designed to focus exclusively on quality-of-life issues. The panel includes 13 members of Congress that will hold hearings over the next year and eventually produce a written report. House officials say that report will inform more changes in the fiscal 2025 NDAA.

However, the additional 2024 spending on military personnel may come at the expense of the civilian workforce.

The appropriations committee added $800 million in funding to cover the cost of the additional raises for junior military personnel, but said it was subtracting $1 billion from the president’s 2024 budget proposal that otherwise would have gone toward civilian hiring.

Since there are no specific line items in the DoD budget for civilian employees, it’s not immediately possible to discern which particular agencies or positions would be affected by the reduction.

But the American Federation of Government Employees, the department’s largest union, argued that the change was unwarranted, and that it improperly ignores an existing statute that’s supposed to let DoD determine the correct blend of the “total force” — military members, civilians and contractors.

“Civilian employees are critical to our military defense and actually should be taking on more responsibilities, not less, to free up our service members to focus on their war-fighting duties,” Everett Kelley, AFGE’s national president said in a statement. “Cutting civilian employees without reducing workloads means more of that work gets shifted to our already overburdened service members or unregulated and costlier contractors.”

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