The military’s senior enlisted leaders on Wednesday urged lawmakers to accelerate improvements to service member pay and housing issues, calling those top priorities to boost recruiting and retention efforts.

“We must start today on reforming military compensation before it becomes one of those big problems,” Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James Honea said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee’s special quality-of-life panel. “It’s not going to be solved by Saturday, or in just one year. But we need to be in front of the problem.”

Honea’s comments — echoed by representatives from each of the military services — come as panel members are finalizing a host of proposals to increase troops’ salaries, expand military child care availability and improve housing options.

The plans are expected to be the basis of a host of legislative moves included in the annual defense authorization bill debate later this year. Panel Chairman Don Bacon, R-Neb., has already said he wants to include boosts to junior enlisted pay among those plans, as well as other ways to generally improve military compensation.

“It is crucial that these men and women are fairly compensated for their dedication, sacrifice, and service they provide to our nation,” he said at the start of Wednesday’s hearing.

Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Troy Black, senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers that military compensation largely “compares well against private-sector counterparts,” adding that Congress must ensure that continues to keep pace in the future.

In recent years, lawmakers have expressed concerns about strict military pay scales that are tied to rank and years of service, rather than proficiency or competitive skills.

While a drastic overhaul is unlikely, members of Congress have proposed targeted bonuses for certain specialties and establishing minimum annual salaries of at least $31,000 for all troops. The most junior troops earn a salary of around $21,000 each year under current military pay scales.

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Joanne Bass noted that Congress has not approved a targeted pay raise for the military since 2007, and said a similar move in the near future could help alleviate some financial issues for families.

Housing challenges — for single and married service members alike — have also come under congressional scrutiny, including at an oversight hearing hosted by the quality-of-life panel last September.

The Government Accountability Office two years ago recommended defense officials overhaul the way the Pentagon calculates troops’ housing allowances, but the department is still reviewing those procedures. Bacon said too many bases still have “deplorable and unacceptable” unaccompanied housing options, and promised recommendations for fixes with that too.

Committee hearings on the annual defense authorization bill are expected to start in the next few weeks, with formal legislative plans set to be unveiled sometime in May.

Congress is not expected to pass a final defense policy bill until fall at the earliest. Most reforms are unlikely to be enacted until sometime in 2025.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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