Pentagon fighting Senate plan to cut allowances for married service members

The chiefs of all of the military services are lobbying Congress to drop legislation that would reduce take-home pay for many service members by tens of thousands of dollars per year, said the Navy’s top officer, who called the plan “unfair.”

At issue are the tax-free housing allowances granted to military members who live outside of military bases. Under current law, service members who are married to one another both draw those monthly stipends as part of their paychecks, but the Senate version of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act would allow only one such allowance per couple.

The value of the housing allowance varies widely based on the cost of living in a given locale, but in a moderately high-cost area like Washington D.C., the change would reduce a mid-ranking enlisted couple’s household income by about $17,000 per year.

“That’s not good, because you’ve made financial arrangements around a whole host of things and then, guess what: we’re suddenly taking a lot of that allowance away. That’s not fair,” Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of Naval operations said. “The President of the United States has said that, and we’ve been very adamant about that in our discussions with Congress.”

Unmarried service members who are living with military roommates would also be affected: their housing allowances would be trimmed to 75 percent of the current rate.

The change is far from a done deal. Although it passed the full Senate in May as part of the annual Defense authorization bill, the House version of the NDAA makes no mention of the issue. A House-Senate conference committee will resume work to reconcile their differences in the massive annual defense bill after the August recess.

The rationale for the change is that the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) — at the “with dependents” rate — is already calibrated to  cover the cost of a family’s rent and utilities in a given locale, and that’s its only purpose.

And the Senate bill does include some protections for members who have already signed leases for houses or apartments: they would be grandfathered-in, with both military members receiving the same BAH until they move to a new duty station.

But Greenert said he, the other military service chiefs and the White House are adamant that the cutbacks would be far-too-sudden a change to a compensation package military members have come to expect for several decades.

“We’re dealing with this very deliberately. We’re trying to find out from the staff who wrote this and what they were trying to do,” he said. “Their comeback is that BAH was originally intended to have one allowance per family for housing. And we say, ‘OK, but that’s not what you’ve been doing. We are where we are, and this is what the law has been for years and years.’ Changing things with a snap of your finger is not the way to do it. At a very minimum, there has to be a period of adjustment so that our people can sort out all of the financial issues this would cause. We’re fighting this pretty darn hard. My fellow chiefs, the Secretary of Defense and everybody in the DoD feels the same way. This is totally contrary to all of the compensation issues we and the Congress have been trying to provide.”

Change in BAH policy would save $1.7 billion over five years

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the new BAH policy would save $77 million in its first year and $1.7 billion over five years.

Its impact on individual military members would vary widely depending on where they happen to be stationed. In a pricey housing market like San Francisco, a married couple of two Army sergeants first class or Navy chief petty officers would see a reduction of nearly $44,000 in their annual income. But even in Huntsville, Alabama, where housing costs are about one-third cheaper, the same couple’s allowance would fall by about $14,000.

Housing allowances have been seen as attractive targets for potential savings in military personnel spending for at least the past two years.

In both the 2015 and 2016 budget proposals, the Obama Administration proposed reducing the allowance for all military members so that it covers only 95 percent of service members’ housing costs instead of 100 percent. CBO estimates that particular change would save $3.8 billion over five years. The Senate also incorporated that proposal into its version of the NDAA; the House did not.

On another personnel matter, Greenert signaled that it’s highly likely that female sailors will soon be admitted into the ranks of the elite Navy SEALs, a position he reinforced this week in an interview with the Navy Times.

No final decisions have been made, he said, but as the military continues to develop gender-neutral standards and eliminate gender-based exclusions for combat roles in cases where those exclusions can no longer be justified, he said the same principles should apply to the special operations community.

The Naval Special Warfare Command has just finished a review of the current standards for SEALs.

“It was a very objective look. And if that’s a good standard, why is it not a good enough standard for everybody? We’re not done yet, but I see no reason to say anything else than, ‘Here are our standards, Who wants to be a SEAL?’ These standards are foundational and proven in a whole host of missions and backgrounds, including not just SEALS, but special operating forces DoD-wide,” Greenert said. “That’s the path we’re headed down, but we’re not done yet. We have to integrate our thoughts into the broader special operating forces and ask whether our conclusions affect the Army special forces, the Air Force special forces, the Marines’ special forces. If so, we’ve got to reconcile that before we make any final decisions.

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