For the last eight years, lawmakers have loaded annual defense authorization bills with new pay and benefit initiatives to support troops and their families and to show the nation’s appreciation.
This year’s defense bills — both the version passed by the House, and the Senate bill to be debated on the floor after the holiday — call for a 3.4 percent military pay raise next January, continuing a string of increases that have surpassed private sector wage growth every year since 2000.
Otherwise, the fiscal 2010 defense bill is lighter than usual on significant personnel initiatives. There are many possible reasons for this.
First, much has been done already to raise wartime pay, benefits and support programs. Indeed these gains, along with a dismal civilian job market, have the services meeting recruiting and retention targets despite 200,000 U.S. troops continuing to rotate through Iraq and Afghanistan.
Second, proposals that boost significantly the overall cost of defense, including military personnel accounts, are eyed today against a backdrop of soaring budget deficits, aggravated by a $700 billion economic stimulus plan and billions more to bail out banks, car companies and insurance firms.
Third, President Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress have focused much legislative attention on a vigorous domestic agenda, to address the U.S. financial and housing crises, global warming and energy need, and a campaign promise to provide a universal health care program.
Fourth, with many senior defense appointees still to be named, including an undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, there isn’t a team in place to push a new legislative agenda for personnel this year.
Fifth, the new administration’s defense budget request reached Capitol Hill three months later than usual, leaving the armed services committees less time to hold hearings or weigh new initiatives. Given that delay, some substantive personnel initiatives, such as a retroactive $500-a-month payment for members kept on active duty under stop loss orders, have been attached to other bills, in this case a wartime supplemental appropriation.
Finally, there’s growing recognition that costly personnel initiatives haven’t relieved the greatest source of strain today on service members and their families — the tremendous pace of operations. This was emotionally described in early June by spouses called to testify before the Senate armed services subcommittee on military personnel.
The spouses’ collective message was that what military families need more than anything is more time together. In that regard, perhaps the most critical initiative in the defense bill are permanent increases in end strength for ground forces, and authority to raise active Army strength by another 30,000 by 2012 if the Obama administration decides to budget for it.
Sheila L. Casey, wife of Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, told senators that families are so stressed “everything is becoming an issue.”
Couples who have seen their marriages deteriorate “don’t have time to get divorced,” she said. “I am … seeing signs of a force under immense strain, and this concerns me greatly,” Casey said. “These signs, these indicators, include cases of domestic violence, child neglect as well as increases in suicides, alcohol abuse and cases of post-traumatic stress.”
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: email@example.com