Defense Combat Pay, Bonus Authority At Risk

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., left, talks with the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., left, talks with the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The outlook for renewing combat pay and other special compensation for troops before the end of the year improved on Monday.

The leaders of the Senate and House Armed Services committees have agreed to pass identical bills authorizing fiscal 2014 funds for the Defense Department, in an effort to expedite the legislation and send it to President Obama before Jan. 1. If Congress does not approve a Defense authorization bill before the end of the month, the department’s authority to offer 37 different types of incentive pay and bonuses to current and prospective military members will expire on Dec. 31. If that happens, it would be the first time in 52 years that Congress failed to pass a Defense authorization bill before year’s end.

Troops will receive a 1 percent across-the-board pay raise in 2014, regardless of whether Congress manages to pass a bill before Dec. 31. The president’s recommendation, which is 1 percent, takes effect if Congress does not offer an alternative. Armed Services committee leaders have agreed on a 1 percent pay hike in the identical legislation they want to fast track through both chambers. The plan prohibits lawmakers from offering amendments.

While a basic pay raise is guaranteed at this point, other compensation, including combat pay and re-enlistment bonuses, are at risk if the House and Senate leadership fail to bring the legislation to a floor vote in time. The House adjourns for the year on Dec. 13, while the Senate leaves Washington on Dec. 20. The plan is for the House to vote this week on the bill, and the Senate to approve the legislation before it leaves town.

“By the way, when people say they want to wait until January, keep in mind that on Dec. 31 the services will no longer be authorized to pay hazardous pay to the troops serving in hostile-fire areas,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe, R-Okla., in floor remarks on Monday. “We start on Jan. 6, and we are going to be in the [continuing resolution] on Jan. 15,” Inhofe said, referring to the chamber’s schedule right after the holidays. “There is no way they are going to pay any attention to Defense authorization during that time period. There is not the time to do it.”

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the department’s expiring authorities in a Dec. 9 letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Affected compensation includes enlistment, re-enlistment and other special bonuses; combat pay; travel and transportation allowances; housing allowances; and premium pay.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., entered Dempsey’s letter into the record during floor remarks on Monday. Levin and Inhofe, who agreed to the bipartisan fast-track plan with their House counterparts, Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., and Ranking Member Adam Smith, D-Wash., acknowledged it wasn’t the ideal way to get such critical legislation completed, but the timing left them no choice.

“This is not the best way to proceed, but our troops and their families and our nation’s security deserve a defense bill, and this is the only practical way to get a defense bill done this year,” Levin said on Monday.

The bill would authorize $552.1 billion in spending for national defense in fiscal 2014, and an additional $80.7 billion for overseas contingency operations.

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