Panel Repeals Cuts to Pentagon Travel Per Diems

A House panel once again has approved legislation that would repeal cuts to per diems for service members and Defense civilian employees on long-term government travel.

The fiscal 2017 Defense authorization bill, which the House Armed Services Committee reported out on April 28, included an amendment scrapping a 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).

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 is up to 75 percent of the locality rate (lodging plus meals and incidentals) for each full day during that time frame; for travel lasting more than 180 days, it drops to 55 percent of the locality rate for each full day under the November 2014 policy.

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Rep. Mark Takai, D-Hawaii, successfully offered the amendment, which also was in the House version of the fiscal 2016 Defense authorization bill, but was dropped from the final version during House-Senate negotiations over the legislation.

“I’ve heard stories of our personnel sleeping in campsites because they couldn’t afford a hotel,” Takai said during the markup. “There are instances when longer-term duty assignments are necessary to the needs of our military and are not simply a choice or a perk. This policy is eroding the morale of the workforce.” Takai’s amendment provided $56 million to reverse the cuts.

Congress and the Obama administration have told agencies they need to slash 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 2014 policy is simply unrealistic, given the increased rates of rental housing and many hotels, they have argued. The movement to repeal the policy has broad and diverse support, including the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, the American Federation of Government Employees, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, Marriott International, and Hilton Worldwide.

In the Senate, a group of bipartisan lawmakers with shipyards in their states in early February urged Defense Secretary Ash Carter to exempt naval shipyard employees from the 2014 policy.

The senators’ letter references a Jan. 19 letter from the head of the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) asking Defense for an immediate waiver for shipyard workers from the new reduced reimbursement rates. “This is jeopardizing the successful execution of off-station availabilities and costing the Navy more than the intended savings,” wrote Adm. William Hilarides to Anthony Kurta, the per diem, travel, and transportation allowance committee charter chair. “Reduced travel allowances have introduced inefficiencies and hardships for shipyard workers on long-term TDY.”

Hilarides cited several factors related to the reduced per diems for long-term TDY that could adversely affect the command’s mission, including “undesirable” turnover among staff because various bargaining unit agreements restrict the amount of forced travel the agency can impose on workers, and difficulty in finding adequate housing. The policy, Hilarides said, “has already had a negative impact on the naval shipyards’ ability to effectively and efficiently conduct Navy ship maintenance.”

In the fall of 2015, Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Brian Schatz of Hawaii unsuccessfully tried to get appropriators to include language in the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill that would have repealed the cuts to the long-term TDY per diems.

A congressionally-mandated study on the policy’s ramifications on employees is due on June 1.

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