This story has been updated.
House lawmakers on Monday will introduce legislation to rescind a five-month-old Pentagon policy that reduced per diems for service members and Defense civilian employees on long-term government travel.
The bipartisan bill would prohibit the Defense Department from reducing the travel allowances for troops and civilian workers based on the length of duty travel. Service members and civilian Pentagon employees on long-term TDY (temporary duty) now have lower reimbursement rates for lodging, meals and other expenses under a new policy that took effect Nov. 1 aimed at saving the department money. For each full day during long-term TDY of 31 to 180 days, the rate is 75 percent of the locality rate (lodging plus meals and incidentals); for travel lasting more than 180 days, it fell to 55 percent of the locality rate for each full day.
“The Pentagon should not put the biggest burden of spending cuts on the backs of workers,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., who is sponsoring the bill along with Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina. “We need to ensure that workers and service members can find decent lodging while traveling to support military missions.”
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 will erode morale and cause an undue burden on government travelers. It’s also simply unrealistic, given the increased rates of rental housing and at many hotels, they argue.
“In recent years, Defense workers have experienced death by a thousand cuts, with pay and benefits being whittled away little by little,” said William Dougan, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. “These cuts to DoD employees’ TDY reimbursements are just salt in the wound. These cuts dealt a significant blow to morale within the department. The passage of this legislation will help rectify the problem of low morale that is already prevalent throughout the department.”
Several other unions and business travel groups, including the American Hotel and Lodging Association, also support scrapping the policy.
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 is advising Defense travelers to consider staying in furnished apartments or similar types of lodging “which are typically cheaper than room rates in commercial lodging.”
In October, Kilmer and 27 other House members sent a letter to Defense Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civilian and Personnel Policy Paige Hinkle-Bowles expressing their concerns about the lower per diem rates. “The department should not put its workers in a position where they are required to travel for work but have to pay out of pocket for basic necessities,” said the letter. Furthermore, as rental costs and average daily rates at hotels are trending upward nationally alongside the economic recovery, DoD could very well find itself priced out of certain markets if per diem rates are artificially capped as this policy would establish.”
The Defense Department would not comment on the pending legislation, as is its policy.
The Pentagon is not the only department that has reduced the daily budget for long-term feds on travel. According to a May 15 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.
In fiscal 2015, the maximum standard per diem rate for Defense travelers in the contiguous United States (including lodging, meals and incidentals) is $129. In more expensive areas, such as Washington, D.C., or San Francisco, the per diem rate is higher.
The General Services Administration establishes per diem rates for lodging, meals and incidental expenses in the continental United States. A standard per diem is applied in locations less commonly traveled by federal workers, while nonstandard areas frequently visited are granted individual rates based on the average daily industry rate. Defense sets the per diem rate for travelers overseas, and in non-foreign areas outside the continental United States.