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Panel pitches NDAA plan to improve troops’ quality of life

Proposals seek to address pay, child care, housing, health care and spousal support

Nebraska Republican Rep. Don Bacon, the Quality of Life Panel’s chairman, leaves a House Republican Conference meeting in the Capitol on Tuesday.
Nebraska Republican Rep. Don Bacon, the Quality of Life Panel’s chairman, leaves a House Republican Conference meeting in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A bipartisan House Armed Services Committee panel issued a report Thursday containing 31 recommendations to improve the lives of military families, with a view to strengthening America’s fighting forces.

The Quality of Life Panel’s proposals seek to address what its members consider to be five key problem areas for military personnel: pay, child care, housing, health care and spousal support.

The 48-page report will be the “foundation” of the fiscal 2025 NDAA, said Rep. Mike D. Rogers, R-Ala., the House Armed Services Committee chairman, at a Thursday news conference.

“We intend to take all of the recommendations and put them into this bill,” he said of the NDAA.

The full committee’s ranking member, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who spoke next, agreed.

The NDAA, Smith said, “is going to include these important recommendations.”

‘Game changer’

Among others, the panel’s recommendations include an increase in so-called regular military compensation for enlisted personnel and, to a lesser degree, officers. On top of that, the members want Congress to add a targeted 15 percent hike in basic pay just for junior enlisted personnel.

The panel recommended that Congress mandate an increase to the so-called Basic Needs Allowance, which supplements the pay of junior personnel.

The panel also would require the Pentagon to reach a pact with state governments that would enable military spouses to keep professional licenses when they move from state to state.

Yet to be determined is how many of the panel’s recommendations Congress will both authorize and appropriate funds for.

“We’re gonna have to appropriate what we’re recommending,” noted the Quality of Life Panel’s chairman, Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a retired Air Force brigadier general, at the news conference.

Even if all the recommendations become law, some experts wonder if certain proposals will be as effective as the panel hopes, particularly as it concerns food insecurity in the ranks.

But the authors of the report believe they have offered a major change to military personnel laws and policies.

“It will, I believe, be an absolute breakthrough and a game changer for our men and women in uniform,” said the panel’s ranking member, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., a former Air Force captain.

And even some who quibble with aspects of the report call it a big deal.

Readiness issue

In a cover letter with their new report, Bacon, Houlahan and the panel’s 11 other members wrote that they had confirmed the seriousness of the five critical problem areas during a series of hearings and briefings over the course of several months.

The panel was created last year, partly to ensure key issues got the attention they deserved while the Military Personnel Subcommittee focused largely on culture war topics, members and aides have said.

Problems for military families such as food insecurity, spousal unemployment, poor quality housing and a dearth of affordable child care options may jeopardize recruitment, retention, morale and even the readiness to fight, experts have said.

“We must never forget — and this is what I think is most important — that our all-volunteer force is the foundation of America’s military strength,” Bacon told reporters. “For this reason, military quality of life is a central national security issue.”

Pay and compensation

On the issue of servicemembers’ income, the panel urged that the benchmark for so-called regular military compensation be increased for all servicemembers from the current 70 percent of the comparable civilian level to 80 percent for enlisted and 75 percent for officers.

In addition to that change, the panel recommended that basic pay for the most junior enlisted personnel (with ranks from E-1 through E-4) net a 15 percent increase.

The House’s fiscal 2024 Defense appropriations bill proposed boosting junior enlisted pay by 30 percent, but that was quietly nixed in the final fiscal 2024 omnibus that included the Defense spending measure.

Food insecurity

Nearly one in four active-duty servicemembers are beset by food insecurity, according to the most recently published Pentagon survey of the force. Of those approximately 286,800 servicemembers, about 120,000 deal with “extreme food insecurity,” the Defense Department found.

The Quality of Life Panel made this a major focus of its work.

The panel endorsed a recommendation in the Pentagon’s fiscal 2025 budget request to increase the so-called Basic Needs Allowance for the lowest income services personnel from 150 percent to 200 percent of the poverty line — and they want to make it a statutory mandate. The Pentagon requested $245 million for the expansion.

Anti-hunger advocates, when reached for comment, welcomed that recommendation. In combination with the junior enlisted pay raise, the more generous Basic Needs Allowance might make it available to more servicemembers who need it, they said.

However, at least some of those advocacy groups think a more effective step would be to expand military families’ eligibility for the Agriculture Department’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Abby J. Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, applauded the report in an email but added: “However, as we have been urging for well over a decade, we know that the best way to truly address food insecurity among military families is to ensure that they can access our country’s most important anti-hunger program: SNAP. This can — and must — be a priority in the next Farm Bill, which Members of Congress are negotiating right now.”

The Quality of Life Panel also did not recommend expanding eligibility for the Basic Needs Allowance by excluding from the program’s income calculations a servicemember’s housing allowance.

Only 0.8 percent of the service personnel grappling with food insecurity are being helped by the Basic Needs Allowance, Pentagon figures showed last year. Dropping the housing allowance from the income calculation would make 21 times as many servicemembers eligible, the RAND Corp. reported last year.

The House’s NDAA in fiscal 2023 and 2024 proposed the tweak, only to see it stripped out both times when the final measure was written in consultation with the Senate.

Congress appropriated $12 million for the Basic Needs Allowance in fiscal 2023, a relative pittance in the defense budget.

Housing, child care and doctors

Approximately two thirds of active-duty personnel live off base and are provided an allowance to defray the costs of housing in their area.

For about a decade prior to fiscal 2015, 100 percent of those costs were reimbursed. But for most of the years since then, the allowance has covered only 95 percent.

The panel urges Congress to require the Pentagon to pay the full amount.

Moreover, the report said the NDAA should force the services to explain when a budget request does not fully fund all of a service’s documented requirements for upkeep of housing and other facilities. Such maintenance budgets are frequently underfunded to pay other Defense bills, lawmakers have often said.

The panel also recommended that child care workers at department facilities be paid rates competitive with commercial levels in their area.

The new report urged Congress to require an increase in access for servicemembers to medical specialists in certain fields without the requirement that the servicemember first obtain a referral.

And the group said the Defense Department must come to an agreement with the Council of State Governments on interstate licensure compacts so military spouses can stay in their chosen fields when they relocate.

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