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Lawmakers Urge Reversal of Defense Per Diem Cuts, Senate Debates Budget Resolution and More

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A bipartisan group of House lawmakers is urging congressional leaders to reverse a 2014 policy reducing the per diem rates for service members and civilian Defense employees who are on extended government travel.

Implemented by the Pentagon in 2014 in an effort to cut costs, the rule has long been a sore spot for Defense personnel and members of Congress. The policy reduced long-term temporary duty travel reimbursement rates by 25 percent for travel between 31 and 180 days, and by 45 percent for trips longer than 180 days. The rates include lodging, meals and incidentals, and vary by locality.

Led by Reps. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, and Walter Jones, R-N.C., 13 lawmakers sent a letter the leadership of the Senate and House Armed Forces committees asking that they insert language into the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act to reverse the rule.

The lawmakers cited a May Government Accountability Office report that said the Defense Department “may not be well positioned to understand whether the flat rate per diem policy is cost-beneficial and meeting its objectives . . . without negatively affecting the traveler and the mission.”

The House version of the fiscal 2018 NDAA blocks the 2014 rule, and it requires the Defense Department to come up with new options to achieve its policy goals “in a manner that is fair, equitable and non-mission impacting.”

“We have repeatedly heard from DoD employees that the 2014 per diem policy results in out-of-pocket costs negatively affecting travelers and, as confirmed by the May 2014 GAO report, ‘. . . more than half of depot officials reported that the policy has affected civilian employees’ willingness to volunteer for long-term TDYs.' ”

Earlier this year, Sens. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Mike Rounds, R-S.D., introduced a bill to restore per diem rates for Defense feds, but it has so far failed to gain traction.

Senators began debate this week on the chamber’s fiscal 2018 budget resolution, which will set the stage for tax reform later this year. On Oct. 5, the House passed its version of the resolution, which includes orders for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to cut $32 billion from the deficit over the next decade and suggests a number of reductions to federal employee retirement programs and health benefits.

The Senate version of the legislation only sends reconciliation instructions to two committees. The Finance Committee would be responsible for $1.5 trillion in tax reform measures, while the Energy and Natural Resources Committee would need to find $1 billion in deficit reduction.

If the Senate approves the resolution as proposed, feds will need to wait and see what lawmakers come up with during conference committee negotiations to determine whether their benefits are again on the chopping block.

Separately, on the House side, Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., is again pushing to better align the boundary maps governing locality pay for salaried and hourly federal employees.

The Locality Pay Equity Act would require OPM to apply the locality pay boundaries for General Schedule workers to Federal Wage System feds. Under current law, hourly workers are compensated by what proponents call a “dated” map based on where military installations were located in the 1950s and use much smaller areas around cities than the current map for salaried employees.

Erich Wagner is a staff correspondent covering pay, benefits and other federal workforce issues. He joined Government Executive in the spring of 2017 after extensive experience writing about state and local issues in Maryland and Virginia, most recently as editor-in-chief of the Alexandria Times. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland.

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