Key House lawmakers on Tuesday renewed their promise to dramatically boost junior enlisted pay in the near future but warned that other budget limits may complicate hopes for a quick fix.
Those include other priorities like restoring full military housing stipends to all troops and boosting child care options across the services. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb. and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s special quality of life panel, said getting all of that work done may require a multi-year plan.
“We’ve got to look at our top lines for next year, build out a plan and get it done as fast as we can,” he told Military Times. “If we can get everything done in one year, great. But we have to make a plan to get all of these things fixed to help out our junior enlisted troops.”
Bacon’s comments came following lawmakers’ presentations for military quality of life improvements during a hearing Tuesday afternoon.
Among the speakers was Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., who has been lobbying fellow members of the House Appropriations Committee since last summer to enact a major overhaul of the military’s pay tables which would boost some younger enlisted troops’ pay by 35%.
“Right now, it’s not until troops are promoted basically two or three times and serve at least four years that they get the same salary as a fast-food worker making $15 an hour,” he told panel members. “We’ve got to raise that.”
Garcia’s proposal — which could still be approved as part of the fiscal 2024 defense appropriations bill pending in the House — would guarantee that even the lowest-ranking service members would make at least $31,000 annually in base pay.
In addition, an E-3 with three years service would see his or her annual salary jump from just under $31,000 to more than $35,000 under the plan. An E-4 with six years in service would see annual pay go from about $36,500 to $38,500.
Garcia’s plan would not change other financial compensation that military personnel are eligible for, including housing stipends, free health care coverage and food allowances.
White House and Pentagon officials have already voiced concerns about the costs and impact of a military pay table rewrite, however. They have pushed for delaying any such moves until a military review of servicemember compensation is completed early next year.
But neither Garcia nor Bacon said they plan to wait that long. If the junior enlisted boost is not included in a final fiscal 2024 budget plan (which is now five months overdue), Bacon vowed to include some parts of the plan in the upcoming fiscal 2025 defense authorization bill debate.
“We’ve been doing across the board pay raises, which over time has pushed the junior enlisted pay and senior officers’ salaries farther apart,” he said. “It’s past time we fix that.”
Most junior enlisted service members currently make around $24,000 a year in basic pay, while enlisted troops nearing retirement typically earn about $70,000 annually.
Officer pay is significantly higher. Young officers clear close to $40,000 a year while senior officers nearing 20 years of service can make in excess of $170,000.
Democrats on the armed services panel also voiced support for the idea of closing that gap in some way. Proposals from the committee for the annual authorization bill — which has passed annually for more than 60 years — are expected later this spring.
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.