Congress Keeps Cuts to Pentagon Travel Per Diems

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Lawmakers have decided to let stand for now cuts to per diems for service members and Defense civilian employees on long-term government travel.

The final version of the fiscal 2016 Defense authorization bill – which the House passed on Thursday – does not repeal a November 2014 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).

Lawmakers hammering out differences between the House and Senate fiscal 2016 Defense authorization bills ultimately rejected the language in the House legislation that reversed the cuts, instead going with the Senate version. The provision included in the Senate bill did not repeal the policy but rather said Defense should “monitor closely the effect of this new policy to avoid unintended disincentives and ensure that that who volunteer for mission essential travel are fully supported and encouraged,” according to the report from the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Senate is expected to pass the final version of the fiscal 2016 Defense authorization bill soon. President Obama has said he will veto the bill because of a provision allowing Defense spending to sidestep sequestration caps by increasing the “emergency” Overseas Contingency Operations fund.

The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, a federal employee union that urged Congress to repeal the policy, said the lower per diems would adversely affect military readiness and end up costing more than they might save.

“Given that there are five senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee who represent the public shipyards where workers are most impacted by this cut, it is extremely disappointing that they failed to advocate for the House repeal language in the final conference report,” said Matt Biggs, legislative and political director for IFPTE. “Make no mistake about it, workers who travel to support the military are not happy with these cuts, and are even more dissatisfied that their senators -- one who actually chairs a subcommittee -- failed to advocate for a full repeal.”

The senators to whom Biggs is referring are Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii; Tim Kaine, D-Va.; Angus King, I-Maine; and Jeanne Shaheen, R-N.H. Ayotte leads the Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support.

The policy, which took effect on Nov. 1, 2014, 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 policy.

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. The new policy is simply unrealistic, given the increased rates of rental housing and many hotels, they have argued. 

The Pentagon has estimated that 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.”

(Image via  / Shutterstock.com)

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