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Military guaranteed pay raise

Military members are guaranteed at least a 1.4 percent pay raise effective Jan. 1, even if a bitterly divided Congress can’t pass a defense authorization bill.

What almost certainly will end, however, is an 11-year string of annual military pay increases that exceeded private sector wage growth by at least a half percentage point.

The House this summer had voted to make it 12 consecutive extra-size pay raises, by including a 1.9 percent military pay hike in its version of the 2011 defense bill, over opposition from military leaders and the White House.

The Senate bill embraces the 1.4 percent raise proposed by the Obama administration, which matches private sector wage growth, as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employment Cost Index (ECI). But it also will be the military’s smallest pay raise since 1962.

Pay officials say blame the poor economy for dampening wage growth nationwide. Consumer prices too have been impacted, which is why military retirees, social security recipients and disabled veterans won’t see a January cost-of-living adjustment for the second consecutive year.

With Republican senators opposed to the defense bill’s provision to repeal the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law, which bars gay military members from serving openly, prospects of passing a final defense bill remained in doubt.

If no defense authorization bill is passed by Jan. 1, existing federal pay law takes hold. It directs that, absent overriding congressional action, military pay is to increase each January based on changes in the ECI, in this case by 1.4 percent.

Even if Senate defense bill is approved, House-Senate conferees tasked to iron out differences for a final bill, are expected to acquiesce to the Senate and administration on the smaller military raise.

Congressional sources cite several factors including the two-year pay freeze planned for federal civilian employees, mounting worries over budget deficits and a jobless rate in the private sector still hovering near 10 percent.

High unemployment helps the services meet and even exceed recruiting and retention targets for quality personnel, despite a grinding pace of operations supporting two war theaters. It also persuades more members of Congress to heed criticism of outside budget analysts that lawmakers have allowed military personnel costs to climb too high.

“Reality has caught up to us,” said a House staff member who has seen support for the larger pay raise weaken.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) posted a statement last week that a federal pay freeze should impact military personnel too, except for those fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere “serving in harm’s way.”

That’s a sharp turnaround. Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), who next month steps down as chair of the House armed services subcommittee on military personnel, said last May that military people continue to deserve bigger pay raises because “the extraordinary high operations tempo has exacted a high penalty on our service members and their families.”

From 2002 through 2010, basic pay rose 42 percent and housing allowances 83 percent, compared to a 32 percent rise in private sector wages, Pentagon pay officials contend. If Congress still wants to boost military compensation, any extra dollars should go into special and incentive pays to fill shortages of critical skills.