Plan to privatize commissaries killed; 'couples BAH' cut survives

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The frozen food aisle at the Naval Submarine Base, New London, Conn., commissary. (Kevin Robinson/Defense Commissary Agency)
The frozen food aisle at the Naval Submarine Base, New London, Conn., commissary. (Kevin Robinson/Defense Commissary Agency)

Plan to privatize commissaries killed; 'couples BAH' cut survives

by: Tom Philpott | .
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published: June 19, 2015

The Senate voted Wednesday to kill a plan hatched by its armed services committee to privatize five large commissary stores to test the concept of commercial grocers running base stores to save defense dollars.

But as the Senate version of the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill moved toward a final floor vote late Thursday, amendments to block other initiatives to curb compensation were denied consideration.  Only a modest number of amendments among hundreds drafted got up-or-down votes.

Two amendments shelved that might have drawn enthusiastic support if put to a roll call vote would have blocked a third consecutive cap on military pay raises and would have scuttled a committee plan to sharply reduce Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) paid to more than 40,000 “dual service” couples, or members married to other military members.

Other amendments denied full Senate consideration would have:

  • Killed the bill’s embrace of an Obama administration plan to curb annual adjustments in local BAH rates for several years until the million recipients are paying five percent of stateside rental costs out-of-pocket.
  • Restored a planned cut of $322 million, from the $1.4 billion annual authorization, to support commissary operations.  If the cut occurs it would reduce shopper savings as well as store staffing and hours of operation. But the money has been restored in a separate defense appropriations bill.

The House-passed version of the authorization bill (HR 1735) would allow a 2.3 percent military pay raise on Jan. 1 to keep pace with private sector wage growth.  The Senate bill supports only a 1.3 percent raise, adopting the pay cap backed by the administration.

The House bill also authorizes full funding of the Defense Commissary Agency and full BAH adjustments so that rates don’t fall behind stateside rental costs.  A House-Senate conference committee later this summer will have to reconcile these differences before a final defense bill can be passed.

Senate Democrats are threatening to filibuster the defense funding bill, and the White House to veto it, over a Republican maneuver that adds $38 billion for wartime operations, to avoid a new round of defense cuts overall, without negotiating some matching budget relief for non-defense programs.

Both chambers continue to avoid voting on defense bill amendments that disabled military retirees and surviving spouses have long sought.  One would end the cut in survivor benefit annuities that surviving spouses see if they also are eligible for VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation.

Another amendment routinely offered but not adopted would expand eligibility for concurrent receipt of full military retired pay and VA disability compensation.  Many retirees with VA disability ratings below 50 percent still see retired pay reduced dollar-for-dollar by their VA compensation.

The most controversial personnel provision still in the Senate bill would end BAH for the lower-ranking member of dual-service couples.  Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) drafted amendments to rescind this language but floor debate and a separate vote didn’t occur.

Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) did argue for an amendment to remove bill language requiring that commercial grocers begin to operate five large commissaries to be named test the concept of privatizing base grocery stores.  Mikulski complained that bill managers had allowed debate on protecting an endangered sage grouse but “I cannot get a vote on protecting commissaries…an earned benefit of our military.”

By day’s end the Inhofe amendment Mikulski fought for was approved by voice vote.  It replaced bill language to require the testing of privatization with a requirement only for a report to Congress on the viability of privatizing commissaries and before any store tests can proceed.

No senators rose to defend the BAH cut for dual-service couples even though it wouldn’t have cleared committee without support of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee chairman, or Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), personnel subcommittee chair, a lifelong bachelor and Air Force reservist.

Currently, dual-service couples with no children when assigned to the same area can each draw BAH at the lower “without dependents” rate.  If they have children, the more senior member can receive BAH at a higher “with dependents” rate while the other draws an individual allowance.

The armed services committee decided this creates a windfall for couples, providing far more in combined allowances than needed to rent housing appropriate to their rank and family size.  The bill would allow only the higher-ranking member to draw BAH at the with-dependents rate.  So as couples are reassigned to new stateside duty together, BAH for the lower ranking member would end.

The latest demographic report on the U.S. military, from 2013, shows 87,200 active duty members in dual-military marriages, defined as active duty members married to other active duty members or to Reserve or Guard members.  Air Force had the highest proportion of dual-service marriages, 10.8 percent of officers and 11.7 percent of enlisted. Marine Corps had the lowest with 4.2 percent of officers and 3.6 percent of its enlisted force.

Reaction across social media shows a military community divided over the Senate initiative.  Many dual-service couples threaten to leave rather than accept an enormous pay cut.  Some other members and spouses counter that if the purpose of BAH is to provide adequate housing off base, then dual service couples do indeed enjoy a compensation windfall.

The right way to look at it, said Joyce Wessel Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association, is that BAH is integral to every member’s compensation.  Watching senators now make “piecemeal changes to [an allowance] system that works boggles the mind,” she said.

A two-year study by a blue ribbon pay commission found that BAH “had improved quality of life.  So why pick around the edges,” asked Raezer.  “And why pick on dual military who have enough going on in their lives.  You want to keep women in service and then say, ‘You’re going to see your compensation cut because you are married to another service member’?”

If the BAH cut survives final negotiations with the House, Raezer predicted, the hit to force morale “will outweigh any potential savings.”

To comment, write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120 or email milupdate@aol.com or twitter:  @Military_Update

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