House Approves Troop Pay and Benefits Bill – Again

U.S. Army Spc. Felicia McCormick takes part in a training exercise in Kosovo. U.S. Army Spc. Felicia McCormick takes part in a training exercise in Kosovo. Staff Sgt. Mary Junell / U.S. Army

The House on Thursday passed a new version of the fiscal 2016 Defense authorization bill that includes a 1.3 percent pay raise for service members and a major overhaul of the military retirement system.

The legislation, which also includes money for basic housing allowances and other provisions affecting troops’ finances, is largely identical to the bill passed earlier by Congress and vetoed by President Obama in late October. After the president’s veto, which was related to sequestration, Congress last week passed a two-year budget agreement that would provide relief from sequestration for the next two years by increasing defense and non-defense spending by a total of $80 billion. That temporary budget relief meant that Defense authorizers had to come up with $5 billion in cuts from the original bill, which they did.

The House passed it by a vote of 370 to 58. The Senate will take up the bill next week, and Obama is expected to sign it.

“With this legislation, we are starting to build a 21st-century military that can tackle all of our national-security challenges,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., in a statement. “Most important of all, this bill will provide for our troops and their families, and I urge the president to sign it.”

Some of the most significant pay and benefits provisions in the bill affect the military’s retirement system, phasing in changes that would allow non-career military service members to boost their retirement nest eggs. The changes would automatically enroll new troops into the Thrift Savings Plan; in addition, service members who stay in the military for 20 years, and are thereby entitled to a retirement pension, would receive a less generous calculation for their annuity. To encourage members to stay in the military, they would receive “continuation pay” after 12 years of service.

The new blended retirement system would only affect new service members. Current service members are grandfathered into the current system, but could opt into the new one.

The fiscal 2016 Defense bill also:

  • Continues providing two basic housing allowances to dual-military married couples and unmarried service members living together.
  • Covers 95 percent of estimated housing expenses, reducing the monthly amount of the BAH through a phased decrease of 1 percent (which began in fiscal 2015) per year over four years.
  • Requires “modest” increases to TRICARE pharmacy drug co-pays for many enrollees.
  • Preserves cuts to per diems for service members and Defense civilian employees on long-term government travel.
  • Maintains the current structure of the commissary system.

Separately on Thursday, Senate Democrats blocked a vote on the fiscal 2016 Defense Appropriations legislation – the bill that actually doles out the money for the department. Democrats want the spending bill to be part of a larger omnibus package funding all the agencies and avoiding a government shutdown in December. According to a Nov. 5 report in The Hill, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., expressed concern that Republicans would call for a continuing resolution to fund the government instead of an omnibus package, if the chamber passed Defense spending legislation as a stand-alone bill.

“For the third time this year, Senate Democrats have blocked vital legislation to give the men and women in our military the funding they need to defend the nation,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in a statement. “There is always some negotiating stance to defend, some procedural quibble to make, some domestic spending priority that is more important.”

Congress has until Dec. 11 to pass all the fiscal 2016 spending bills individually, or lump them together in an omnibus package. If lawmakers fail to do that, the government will shut down.

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