A House panel on Wednesday approved legislation that would repeal cuts to per diems for service members and Defense civilian employees on long-term government travel.
The fiscal 2016 Defense authorization bill included an amendment scrapping a six-month-old Pentagon policy that resulted in lower reimbursement rates for lodging, meals and other expenses for service members and civilian employees on long-term TDY (temporary duty). The policy, which took effect on Nov. 1, reduced the reimbursement rates by 25 percent for long-term TDY of 31 to 180 days, and by 45 percent for travel exceeding 180 days. So for long-term TDY of 31 to 180 days, the reimbursement rate was up to 75 percent of the locality rate (lodging plus meals and incidentals) for each full day during long-term TDY of 31 to 180 days; for travel lasting more than 180 days, it fell to 55 percent of the locality rate for each full day under the November 2014 policy.
The amendment, offered by Rep. Mark Takai, D-Hawaii, was based on a stand-alone bill introduced in March by Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., and Walter Jones, R-N.C. “The Pentagon should not put the biggest burden of spending cuts on the backs of workers,” Kilmer said at the time. “We need to ensure that workers and service members can find decent lodging while traveling to support military missions.”
Takai on Wednesday said the policy is having “very negative effects” on Defense civilians.
Congress and the Obama administration have told agencies they need to cut travel costs. Still, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, as well as several unions, believe the Pentagon’s changes have eroded morale and caused an undue burden on government travelers. It’s also simply unrealistic, given the increased rates of rental housing and many hotels, they have argued.
The Pentagon has estimated that the new policy on lower per diem rates for long-term TDY will save $22 million per year. Defense has noted that the commercial lodging industry considers stays over 30 days “extended” and “typically offers reduced rates to ensure occupancy.” The department also advised Defense travelers to consider staying in furnished apartments or similar types of lodging “which are typically cheaper than room rates in commercial lodging.”
Takai’s amendment would offset the cost of eliminating the cuts by taking money from the administration account within the Office of the Defense Secretary’s budget because “they are the ones that implemented this reckless policy in the first place,” said the congressman.
Federal employee unions and the American Hotel and Lodging Association praised the amendment’s inclusion into the Defense authorization bill, which the House Armed Services Committee reported out on Wednesday.
“Without this amendment, Pentagon employees may be unduly burdened when they travel in service of their country, and hotels may struggle to offer the level of service that they have always sought to provide these workers,” said Craig Kalkut, the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s vice president of government affairs.
American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox said repealing the policy would “ensure that DoD civilian employees can travel and do their jobs in support of service members without having to worry if they can afford to pay for official travel expenses and also maintain their financial responsibilities at home.”
The Pentagon is not the only department that has reduced the daily budget for long-term feds on travel. According to a May 15, 2014, Powerpoint presentation from the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, other departments, including Interior and Agriculture, have reduced per diem rates for employees on extended travel.