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.
"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 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 has become unsustainable and threatens 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.
"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.
They also contend that service members and their families make unique sacrifices and deserve all the benefits.
Still, concerns about fiscal realities emerged during the panel's brief discussion about the legislation.
Rep. Susan Davis of California, the top Democrat on the panel, said she supported the bill's preservation of the military benefits, but Congress needs to "begin a conversation to address these issues."
"Hard decisions will need to be made," she said, warning that escalating benefit costs will force costly trade-offs, including reducing the number of active-duty members and the money used to prepare the force.
For example, 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.