House subcommittee to review cuts to commissaries

The House armed services’ subcommittee on military personnel has rejected Pentagon plans to: slow increases in military housing allowances starting next year; raise Tricare fees on families and retirees; and narrow coverage by ending Tricare Prime, the military’s managed care option.

But in shaping personnel sections of the fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill (HR 4435), the subcommittee wouldn’t block a planned military pay cap for January. The Obama administration seeks a one percent raise versus 1.8 percent to match private sector wage growth.

Also, subcommittee chairman Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., hinted that the Defense Commissary Agency’s budget would be squeezed, and presumably so would shopper savings, if base grocery stores can’t run more efficiently.

The bill would require the Secretary of Defense to conduct a new review of commissaries, in this case by relying on “the services of an independent organization experienced in grocery retail analysis.”

Such a review, Wilson said, might help to “reverse some of the cuts” in the commissary system budget. Wilson didn’t say how deep the cuts would be. Committee staff said those type of details would not be released until the full committee amends and votes out the full defense bill May 6.

The administration has proposed cutting $1 billion a year from the Defense Commissary Agency’s $1.4 billion appropriation by 2017. The cut would be phased over three years, starting with $200 million in fiscal 2015.

If the subcommittee decided to block only half of the proposed cut for next year, as one unconfirmed AP report suggested, commissaries would face a hit of $100 million or seven percent.

Wilson and Rep. Susan Davis of California, ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, needed only minutes to complete an open “mark” of the bill’s personnel provisions. With defense budgets squeezed by the 2011 Budget Control Act, the number of personnel initiatives is modest.

The Senate Armed Services Committee will unveil its version of the bill in late May, after the Joint Chiefs of Staff have had another chance to urge deeper cuts to compensation program than the House panel is endorsing.

The House panel did accept proposed active duty force cuts totaling 52,800 by October 2015. That includes a 30,000 cut in Army strength to reach 499,000; a 16,700 cut to Air Force, down to 310,900, and a 6,100 cut in Marines to 184,100. Navy strength would be unchanged at 323,600.

Studies often serve to delay decisions and there are plenty ordered up by the House panel in this wartime election year. One is to be an anonymous survey of random service members on pays and benefits to determine preferred forms of compensation.

Other language directs more frequent reviews and analyses from the U.S. Comptroller General to determine the adequacy of the number of health care providers who accept Tricare Standard and Tricare Extra.

The Defense Secretary also is to submit a report on modernizing and realigning military medical facilities.

During mark up Wilson and Davis touted new steps in the bill to strengthen protections against sexual assaults. Each concluded brief remarks by rejecting most Defense proposals to rein in personnel costs.

Back in March, when introducing the 2015 defense budget request, Robert Hale, then under secretary of defense and comptroller, warned that if Congress rejected every initiative to curb compensation, it would punch “a $2.1 billion hole in our fiscal ‘15 budget.”

The House subcommittee seems to have punched a hole only half that size by opting not to secure a full January military pay raise of 1.8 percent. If that silence on the raise survives the full committee mark, and a vote by the full House and also a Senate version of the defense bill, it would be a green light for President Obama to impose a one percent pay cap, as he did last year, under his authority to introduce an alternative federal pay in September.

Just a few years ago, the armed services committees could toss out budget cost-saving initiatives, or vote to add expensive new programs, by negotiating deals with appropriators to raise defense budget top lines.

That isn’t possible under the restraints of the 2011 Budget Control Act. It also is why the Joint Chiefs warn that training, modernization and other critical readiness accounts are at risk if their plans to curb benefits are killed.

Wilson sounded unconcerned as he rattled off the cost-saving ideas his subcommittee had rejected.

“This mark does not include the Department’s request for military retirees to pay more for health care” or its proposal to make “a fundamental change to the Tricare benefit” or its plan to trim increases in Basic Allowance for Housing for stateside members living off base, Wilson said.

He didn’t explain how, given rigid budget ceilings, the subcommittee will replace savings lost from not capping increases to Basic Allowances for Housing, modifying Tricare and raising Tricare fees. Wilson did note the nation is still at war. He also gave another reason to delay most benefit cuts.

“Congress established the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission and we need to be informed of their analysis before proceeding with wide impacting changes,” he said.

The commission’s report is due next February. Members of the armed services committees cited that often in deflecting the pleas of military leaders over the past two months that compensation growth must be slowed now.

Davis did so again Wednesday. Apparently not swayed by recent testimony of military leaders, Davis said she needed to hear more.

“While I support not including in the mark the proposed legislative changes to the commissary system, the housing allowances reduction and the health care changes,” Davis said, “I do believe that we need to begin a conversation to address these issues. Part of that conversation needs to include the results of the (MCRMC) so that we can address compensation and retirement in a holistic approach.”

Send comments to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120, email or twitter: Tom Philpott @Military_Update

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