WASHINGTON — An Army corporal would get a full housing allowance to rent an off-base apartment while a military family will see little change in their grocery costs at the commissary as an election-year Congress rebuffed Pentagon efforts to trim military benefits.
The House Armed Services personnel subcommittee voted unanimously on Wednesday to leave intact the current military health care system, the housing allowance and much of the Pentagon’s $1.4 billion in direct subsidies to the commissaries.
The panel’s action marked the first step in the defense budget process on Capitol Hill, with the full Armed Services Committee expected to approve the bill next week.
Facing diminished budgets, three defense secretaries and senior officers have maintained that the cost of personnel benefits have become unsustainable and threaten the Pentagon’s ability to prepare the force for warfighting.
The department has proposed gradual reductions that would increase out-of-pocket expenses for current and retired military as it faces a sober reality — military pay and benefits comprise the largest share of the budget, $167.2 billion out of $495.6 billion.
Every attempt by the Pentagon to trim benefits has faced fierce resistance from congressional Republicans and Democrats as well as powerful outside military organizations that argue the benefits help attract men and women to the all-volunteer force.
They also contend that service members and their families make unique sacrifices and deserve all the benefits.
The Pentagon currently covers 100 percent of off-base housing costs for an individual who doesn’t receive government-provided housing. The department proposed a gradual reduction to 94 percent, meaning a service member’s out-of-pocket expense would be about 6 percent — 5 percent for the housing allowance and 1 percent in renter’s insurance.
For a sergeant with dependents, the average cost would be $41 next year, $82 in 2016 and $102 in 2017. For an Army captain, the amount would be slightly higher. The subcommittee rejected any change in the housing allowance.
The commissaries, which sell reduced-price, brand-name items, receive direct subsidies of $1.4 billion. That means a military family of four that shops only at the commissary saves about $4,500 a year, according to the department. The Pentagon wants to reduce the direct subsidies by $1 billion over three years.
The full Armed Services committee is expected to restore about $100 million of the $200 million cut to the commissary subsidies in the fiscal 2015 budget.
In its legislation, the panel would require the defense secretary to “to conduct a review, utilizing the services of an independent organization experienced in grocery retail analysis, of the defense commissary system.”
It also seeks an “anonymous survey of random members of the armed forces regarding pay and benefits, including the value that members place on forms of compensation, relative to one another, including basic pay, allowances for housing, bonuses and special pay, health care benefits, and retirement pay.”
Health care has become one of the biggest entitlement programs in the military at a cost of some $52 billion a year.
Three years ago, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates tried to increase fees by $5 a month after the Pentagon had gone 16 years without an increase. He faced stiff opposition in Congress and from outside groups.
In this year’s budget, the Pentagon proposed simplifying the TRICARE system, which would have meant slight increases in out-of-pocket expenses for active duty families and retirees. Active duty members would have no out-of-pocket expenses.
The subcommittee rejected those changes.
Facing intense pressure from outside groups, Congress reversed course earlier this year on military benefits, voting to restore full cost-of-living pension increases for younger military retirees. Less than two months earlier, lawmakers had backed a modest cut.