Obama Tells Troops They Won’t Miss a Paycheck

Petty Officer 1st Class Mark O'Donald/U.S. Navy file photo

President Obama said this week that service members won’t miss a paycheck, despite the ongoing fiscal 2016 budget drama playing out between Capitol Hill and the administration. But how much those troops will receive beginning in January is another question.

“Our men and women are going to get paid,” Obama told reporters during a Pentagon briefing on Monday, in response to the administration’s repeated veto threats of the legislation containing troop pay for next year. “I’ve been president now for six and a half years, and we’ve had some wrangling with Congress in the past. Our service members haven’t missed a paycheck.”

The White House has threatened to veto the current Defense authorization legislation and its companion spending bills because, among other things, the legislation does not repeal sequestration but instead bolsters the department’s budget by labeling billions in permanent funding part of the overseas contingency operations account. The funds in that account are not subject to the automatic budget caps that will resume in fiscal 2016. The Obama administration views that move as a budget gimmick, and instead would like sequestration repealed governmentwide.

The House Republican leadership has used the issue of military pay for the past month to lambaste the White House for its veto threats. “How can the president say our troops will get paid when he’s threatening to veto the bills that pay them?” said a July 6 release from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “If the president actually wants our troops to get paid, he ought to drop his threat to veto the bills that pay them. Immediately.”

This is a bit misleading. If, in fact, the fiscal 2016 legislation funding the Defense Department doesn’t make it into law by Sept. 30 -- when fiscal 2015 ends – it’s possible, though highly unlikely that service members won’t get paid. What’s more likely is that Congress will pass a short-term spending measure funding the government, including the Defense Department, before then to avoid a government shutdown in October. In that case, troops (along with federal civilian employees) will continue to get a paycheck with the fiscal 2015 pay raise of 1 percent.

If the worst happens – Obama vetoes the Defense bills, Congress can’t pass an overall continuing resolution before Oct. 1, and the government shuts down this fall – troops still probably won’t miss a paycheck, based on recent history. Congress passed the Pay Our Military Act in 2013 (the last time the government shut down) to ensure that troops would continue to get paid on time through Jan. 1, 2015, in the event of a government shutdown. The law is now expired, but it’s almost certain that lawmakers will pass another such bill if they think a government shutdown is a real possibility this fall.

In addition to the veto drama, there’s also uncertainty over how much of a pay raise service members will eventually receive in 2016.

This is where it gets confusing.

The House passed its Defense authorization bill in May, while the Senate passed its version in June. A House-Senate conference committee currently is hammering out differences between the bills, which include the amount of the military pay raise.

As for the companion spending bills, the House passed its Defense appropriations legislation in June, while the Senate version is still awaiting a floor vote. (The authorization legislation authorizes how the department will spend its money, while the appropriations bills actually fund the department.)

The House was silent on a pay raise for service members in its authorization bill. By not suggesting an alternative, lawmakers are embracing an automatic cost-of-living adjustment of 2.3 percent for service members in 2016, but also tacitly allowing Obama to intervene with his own proposed boost, which is 1.3 percent for 2016. The formula for determining service members’ annual pay increase is based on the Employment Cost Index and the growth in private-sector wages. But under the law (Title 37, Chapter 19, Section 1009) the president has the authority to set an alternate pay raise for military personnel, citing a national emergency or fiscal concerns, if Congress doesn’t pass legislation adjusting the amount or canceling it.

The House spending bill specifically calls for a 2.3 percent increase for troops, indicating where lawmakers’ thoughts are on the raise.

The Senate bills, however, support a 1.3 percent raise for troops in 2016 -- the same as Obama’s proposal.

Lawmakers ultimately will settle on a 2016 pay raise amount, but politics could very well get in the way of when that raise goes into effect. Congress, however, is likely to make any raise retroactive to Jan 1, 2016, if, say, Defense is operating on a continuing resolution that funds the department at fiscal 2015 levels when the new year begins.

Regardless of how it plays out, the odds of a service member missing a paycheck because of leaders’ inability to agree on issues unrelated to an actual military pay raise, are slim to none. Nobody on either side of the aisle wants to be blamed for messing with troop pay.

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