WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress is saying "not so fast" to a Pentagon proposal to cut subsidies to military commissaries where service members and their families shop at a reduced cost, as well as other proposed changes to benefits.
The House Armed Services Committee unveiled its draft legislation Tuesday, and Republicans and Democrats on the military personnel subcommittee are expected to approve it Wednesday. It's one of the initial steps as Congress begins crafting its annual defense policy bill.
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the committee, said the legislation rejects Pentagon proposals "that would have increased out-of-pocket costs for military families, including the elimination of most TRICARE plans, and reduction of housing allowances and commissary benefits."
In proposing its fiscal 2015 budget, the Pentagon called for a $1 billion cut over three years to the subsidies for commissaries, reducing the amount to $400 million. The Defense Department is also calling for smaller housing allowances and changes in the health care program.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and senior military officials have argued that the reductions in benefits are necessary as the increasing personnel costs are coming at the expense of the military's readiness and warfighting ability.
Lawmakers have been unwilling to reduce or change benefits for service members and their families, even more so in an election year. Military organizations fear that the reductions in subsidies to the commissaries will force several to close.
Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., a member of the subcommittee, said the government asks members of the all-volunteer force to fight and their families to make sacrifices.
Cutting benefits is "so symptomatic of asking people to do something and the government not fulfilling its promise," she said.
Facing strict budget limits, the full committee will meet next week to determine how to pay for their changes to the Pentagon budget. They are likely 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."
Earlier this year, Congress reversed course, voting to restore full cost-of-living pension increases for younger military retirees. Less than two months earlier, lawmakers had backed a modest cut.