The Senate Armed Services Committee wants to save money by cutting back on housing benefits for armed service members, potentially costing individual military members hundreds of dollars a month.
Currently, armed service members who live off-base in the United States receive a flat-rate stipend called the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), which is calculated based on their family status, rank, and cost of living by zip code. If they find housing for less than the allotted benefit or live with a working spouse or roommate, how they use the extra money is up to them.
The housing benefit is meant to help service members cope with frequent required moves, which also often mean that the military paycheck is the only one coming in, as many spouses are forced to sacrifice their own careers.
But the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes a provision that would trim this extra money from service members.
In a report accompanying the bill, lawmakers argued that the current program has become bloated and excessive, and needs to be scaled back to trim costs. “While servicemembers paid as much as 22 percent of their housing costs out of pocket in the decades preceding the change to the current system in the late 1990s, by 2006, out-of-pocket expenses were eliminated entirely, and indeed, in certain circumstances, as demonstrated by a recent US Army Audit Agency (USAAA) audit, the benefit now far exceeds the actual cost of housing borne by some servicemembers,” they wrote.
The lawmakers propose that service members would only be reimbursed for whichever is less — a maximum stipend amount, or their actual rent and utilities costs, which service members would have show documentation to prove. Under their proposal, service members who choose to live with roommates would see their benefit slashed, as would married military couples.
Although the Committee appears to view the housing benefit as a windfall exploited by service members, advocates and the Defense Department argue that the stipend — and the flexibility it currently affords — is an important part of compensation for service members and military families, and helps fill the gaps left by basic pay and benefit shortfalls.
For example, a sergeant in the Army, either with 4 years of military experience or having come in at an elevated rank due to an associates or bachelor’s degree, earns a little over $31,000 a year from basic pay. At that rate, finding a deal on housing and pocketing a few extra hundred dollars a month can make a real difference, particularly if they have dependents.
The Senate’s proposal has the potential to affect housing stipend totals — and in many cases, effective pay and quality of life, for nearly every service member in coming years. It would hit dual military couples and lower-ranked service members, particularly those with spouses or children, the hardest.
It’s unclear from the Senate report just what the projected savings would be if the reform passes. Any changes wouldn’t go into effect until 2018, and the bill still needs to be reconciled with the House version, which was approved earlier this month and did not include any housing stipend provisions. Last year the House stripped out a similar provision from the Senate that limited payouts to dual military families, opting to remain with the current system.
Meanwhile, the Senate’s proposed pay raise for troops is below private sector growth for the fourth year in a row, and according to Military Times BAH rates even under the current system are predicted to drop to 97 percent of projected housing costs by 2017.
As lawmakers look to troop compensation as a place to tighten fiscal belts, Congress continues to provide for hugely expensive and ineffective weapons programs. The United States spends more on Defense than the next six countries in the world combined.