House panel backs military pay increase, new hiring

A House Armed Services subcommittee completed work on its portion of the massive defense authorization bill (H.R. 4546) Thursday, approving plans for new military hiring and an across-the-board 4.1 percent pay hike.

The chairman of the Military Personnel Subcommittee, John McHugh, R-N.Y., said in an opening statement that while the military has responded "magnificently" to the Sept. 11 call to arms, wartime operations "have both masked and exacerbated the same debilitating stresses of high operations and ... resource shortages that existed before the start" of the war on terrorism. To that end, he said the bill would take the "necessary steps" to improve the strength, compensation and health care systems of the Defense Department.

While staff would not give a total dollar amount for the bill, they did say it tracked closely with the President's budget request, which included $12.3 billion more for personnel accounts than the previous year, including a $1.4 billion increase for health care costs.

McHugh said the bill would provide the largest single-year growth in active military strength since the mid-1980s, authorizing a one percent increase, or 12,650 more personnel than fiscal 2002. The bill would also increase National Guard and reserve component full-time staff by some 2,400 personnel.

In addition, the bill would authorize Bush's proposed 4.1 percent across-the-board pay raise, while providing for targeted raises of up to 6.5 percent for mid-grade and senior noncommissioned officers, as well as mid-grade officers. McHugh also pointed out that the bill would reduce out-of-pocket housing expenses for service members from 11.3 percent to 7.5 percent in fiscal 2003, with plans of eliminating out-of-pocket expenses by fiscal 2005.

On the issue of veterans pay, the bill would ensure that by 2007, all retirees rated by the Veterans Administration as being 60 percent disabled receive both their full-time military pay and their veterans disability pay. Nearly $5.8 billion was put in the budget resolution for this particular expense, despite some controversy over the cost.

Democrats lauded the bill and offered no amendments. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., said she would offer an amendment allowing military women to receive abortions overseas at the full committee markup next week or on when the bill reaches the floor.

Other highlights of the bill include:

  • An authorization for a growth in service academy graduates from 4,000 to 4,400 a year over the next several years.
  • Proposed reforms to improve the military justice system in the National Guard.
  • Language to create a voluntary leave-sharing program that would permit military personnel to donate unused leave to others.
  • An extension of the time that reservists can use the Reserve Component Montgomery GI Bill from 10 years to 14 years.
  • A recommendation that reserve retirement eligibility be keyed to a minimum of six years of service rather than eight.
  • A request to the General Accounting Office to evaluate impediments to effective claims processing within the military health system.