House panel beats back move to trim military benefits

Members of Congress took the first steps Wednesday to stave off or reduce cuts to military benefits that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had proposed earlier this year.

The House Armed Services personnel subcommittee voted unanimously 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.

“I’m just really concerned about military families and this doesn’t need to be,” Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., chairman of the personnel subcommittee, said of the proposed Pentagon cuts after the panel vote. “To me the primary focus of the national government is national defense. We will be providing.”

The subcommittee’s action drew praise from the Nevada National Guard.

“The Nevada Military Department is very pleased that our elected officials voted to sustain our commissaries for the time being,” Guard spokesman Maj. Dennis Fournier said in an email.

Nevada National Guard soldiers, airmen and their families in rural areas use commissaries in Bridgeport, Calif., and at Naval Air Station Fallon while more than 81,000 military retirees, Guard, reserve and active duty personnel in Southern Nevada buy groceries and supplies from the Nellis Air Force Base commissary.

“The savings are substantial, and this amenity helps our soldiers and airmen stretch their dollar while providing for their families,” Fournier said.

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.

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 with bipartisan support.

After a similar opportunity in the Senate to reject cutbacks in military benefits or propose changes in a conference committee, a final compromise bill to authorize funding would emerge later this year for a decision by President Barack Obama.

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 war-fighting.

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.

“America has an obligation to make sure service members and their families are fairly and appropriately compensated and cared for during and after their time in uniform,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress last month. “We also have a responsibility to give our troops the finest training and equipment possible — so that whenever America calls upon them, they are prepared.”

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.

Congress’ budget analysts estimate that a member of the Army receives $99,000 worth of benefits and pay compensation. The Congressional Budget Office says non-cash compensation amounts to about 60 percent, and includes health care, housing, education and subsidized food.

The Pentagon currently covers 100 percent of off-base housing costs for an individual who doesn’t receive government-provided housing. The department had 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.

Review-Journal writer Keith Rogers contributed to this report.