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Military update: Joint chiefs have one opportunity to derail 'reforms'

When Congress reconvenes on Nov. 12, opponents of billions of dollars in military compensation “reforms” sought by President Obama and the joint chiefs of staff will have one final and narrow opportunity to derail the plans.

Three significant compensation changes still alive on Capitol Hill are:

• A second consecutive 1-percent cap on the January military pay raise;

• A string of annual increases in prescription drug co-payments for retirees who use retail pharmacies or TRICARE mail order, which would begin next year;

• Higher out-of-pocket rental costs to be paid by a million service members who draw stateside Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH).

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill would allow all three, having accepted the case of military leaders that compensation must be slowed to sustain readiness amid shrinking budgets.

The House-passed bill declines to endorse these changes. However, the House left itself in a weak position to stave off the pay curbs by also declining to identify defense budget cuts elsewhere to replace hefty savings tied to raising drug co-pays and slowing BAH increases over the next several years.

As a result, House-Senate conferees tasked with negotiating a final defense bill likely face the choice of accepting compensation curbs in the Senate bill or cutting force readiness more directly by slashing training, tying up ships, grounding aircraft or making deeper force cuts, Hill sources suggest.

Only fast-spending readiness accounts like these could produce equivalent savings to pay curbs.

Still the Military Coalition, a consortium of 32 associations and veterans’ groups, is pressing to block the compensation curbs whatever the odds of success. In a letter this month to retiring Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, chairman of the committee, and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, its ranking member, the coalition urges repeal of additional defense spending cuts called for under the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) with its indiscriminate deficit-reduction tool called sequestration.

The BCA, it argues, has created a “benefits versus bullets” debate that puts readiness at risk. “Funding is needed for both — not one over the other.”

Meanwhile, on the coalition’s behalf, Military Officers Association of America found “champions” to introduce amendments to the Senate bill (S. 2410) during floor debate. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, wants the pay cap replaced with a raise to match private-sector wage growth. Democratic North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan’s amendment would block the planned pharmacy co-pays. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, seeks to remove bill language that would dampen BAH increases through 2017.

But this year, like last year, the Senate might not debate a defense bill if leaders decide there isn’t time to sort through amendments, debate them for a week or longer, hold a full Senate vote, appoint conferees to iron out differences with the House and then pass a compromise bill through both chambers.

That is still Levin’s desire for the last defense bill he will shepherd through the Senate.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at:

[email protected]