19.5% Pay Raise for Junior Enlisted Troops Approved by House Panel

Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, arrives to meet with the House Republican Conference at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A 19.5% pay hike for junior enlisted service members next year is one step closer to reality after the House Armed Services Committee advanced its must-pass defense policy bill Wednesday night.

The committee voted 57-1 to approve its version of this year's National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, that includes a host of measures aimed at improving quality of life in the military. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., was the lone "no" vote.

The committee approval came after a 12-hour meeting -- a comparatively short session by committee standards -- in which lawmakers also rehashed contentious debates they've had in recent years about diversity and COVID-19, though with less intensity than before.

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This year's House version of the NDAA is intently focused on military quality-of-life issues after the House Armed Services Committee empaneled a bipartisan group of lawmakers to study problems harming service members' well-being. As committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., noted at the top of Wednesday's meeting, this year's bill was even given a different official name than normal: the Servicemember Quality of Life Improvement and National Defense Authorization Act.

"We did that to underscore the tremendous gains this bill makes toward improving the quality of life for our service members and their families," Rogers said. "No service member should have to live in squalid conditions. No military family should have to rely on food stamps to feed their children. And no one serving this country should have to wait weeks to see a doctor or a mental health specialist."

    The bill advanced by the committee endorses a 4.5% raise for service members of all ranks, in line with the Biden administration's budget request and the federal formula for calculating annual military pay raises.

    But the bill would also give E-1s through E-4s another 15% raise on top of that, meaning those troops would get a total 19.5% raise next year if the bill becomes law as is.

    Other major compensation-related provisions include increasing the Basic Allowance for Housing to cover 100% of housing costs rather than the 95% it does now and expanding eligibility for the Basic Needs Allowance to help more troops facing food insecurity access the benefit.

    To help fix the military's dilapidated barracks, the bill would require the military to report to Congress the full cost of maintaining the housing. In recent years, the military services have funded facilities sustainment at only about 80% of what's actually needed, lawmakers have said.

    Culture war fights were more muted during the committee debate this year than last, but lawmakers still got some swings in.

    The committee spent an hour and a half debating a pair of amendments from Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., to ban affirmative action at the military service academies and consideration of race in accessions, promotions and command selections. Both amendments were approved along party lines.

    Last year, the Supreme Court banned race-based college admissions practices but exempted the service academies from its ruling. The same advocacy group that won last year's case has since sued to end affirmative action at West Point and the Naval Academy, but the Supreme Court earlier this year declined a request to intervene before lower courts consider the cases.

    Affirmative action at the military academies "violates the military's long-standing meritocratic principles and undermines public confidence in our military," said Banks, who is running for the Senate this year.

    Rep. Jennifer McClellan, D-Va., countered that "focusing on making sure that our armed services reflect the diversity of the country it protects and that the officer corps reflects the diversity of the country it protects will make us stronger and will make us safer."

    After a short back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats, the committee also approved by voice vote an amendment from Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., that would require the Pentagon to "develop and implement a strategy to specifically recruit" former service members who were discharged over their refusal to follow the since-repealed COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Pentagon officials have said they've reached out to those who were discharged to let them know they are allowed to reenlist but have found little interest in doing so.

    The committee also easily adopted a range of less controversial but potentially consequential amendments, including ones to automatically register all 18- to 26-year-old men for a potential military draft rather than making them register themselves; allow service members to fill prescriptions for up to a year's worth of birth control at once so they don't have to worry about access while they are deployed; and conduct an independent study on creating a new branch of the military devoted to cybersecurity.

    The NDAA now heads to the House floor with an expected vote by the full chamber in the coming weeks. The Senate Armed Services Committee will also consider its own version of the NDAA next month, followed by the full Senate. The House and Senate will then need to negotiate a compromise version of the bill before it can become law.

    Related: Must-Pass Defense Bill Includes 4.5% Military Pay Raise on Top of 15% Increase for Junior Enlisted Troops

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