by Jessica Grassetti
I am an American Soldier. When I raised my right hand over fifteen years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Almost six years ago, I swore a different kind of oath to my husband when I became his wife. If the President approves the Senate-approved National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2017, this second oath will cause me to potentially lose 20 percent of my regular military compensation package.
The proposed NDAA includes language that authorizes either an elimination or decrease in Basic Housing Allowance (BAH) for dual-military members and cohabitating military members. This is the second year that the Senate NDAA proposal includes this provision. Last year the White House and all the Military Chiefs disagreed with this legislation due to the sudden negative financial impact that it would have on service members.
Despite this, the Senate chose to recommend it again this year. There are two major contentious issues with the Senate proposal. The first deals with the definition of BAH and its categorization as Regular Military Compensation (RMC) and the second is the discriminatory and regressive nature of the cuts. If the Senate proposal is approved, Congress will debate it, ultimately sending a version to the White House for approval.
First and foremost, arguments stating that BAH is not a part of compensation or income are simply not true and are not supported by law or status quo. A service member’s BAH is a component of regular military compensation (RMC). United States Code defines “regular compensation” or “regular military compensation” as “the total of the following elements that a member of a uniformed service accrues or receives, directly, or indirectly, in case or in kind every payday: basic pay, basic allowance for housing, basic allowance for subsistence.”
A service “member” is defined as “a person appointed, or enlisted in, or conscripted into, a uniform service.” Therefore, the idea that once a dual military couple is married, you can and should combine their regular military compensation is both illegal and insulting. The insinuation that we are somehow a “two for one” deal for the nation, and that this should allow the U.S. government to discount our individually earned compensation packages, is ridiculous.
The message of the National Defense Authorization Act is, in effect, that my service is worth less than my unmarried counterpart of the same rank, simply because I happen to be married to another service member. The same logic applies to cohabitating military personnel. No other professional career field has this practice. This is where the argument for and against these proposed cuts begins and ends. All service members are provided BAH as a part of their RMC: Every. Single. Service. Member. It does not matter and you should not be penalized for your marriage choice or if you decide to share a dwelling.
The issue of how all Service Members spend their BAH is a separate topic of discussion and certainly open for review. However, it is important to bring up the cost of child care in this discussion because it does matter. Many people are quick to point out that the child care costs for a dual military couple are not applicable to this debate since BAH is not intended to pay for child care.
Although technically true, when you consider that BAH has long been considered and codified by law as a part of compensation, that counter-argument tends to fall apart. Service members depend on this money as part of their salary and if eliminated, those costs will increase the percentage of basic pay that Service Members will have to pay out of pocket for child care and a myriad of other expenses.
This will have a significant negative effect on Service Member paychecks, increase money stressors in a marriage, and decrease quality of life. Furthermore, RMC is Congress’ method to help close the civilian-military pay gap and to ensure that the all-volunteer force is comprised of the right mix of personnel. Enacting a policy such as this, without somehow accounting for it in a Service Member Base Pay increase, will most likely incentivize people to leave the service. True, it is an All-Volunteer Force and there will be some that argue that this does not matter. However, given the investment of time, training, and subject matter expertise that mid-level Service Members have, this could have a negative impact on the overall military’s readiness.
Even more disturbing about these proposed BAH cuts is that they will disproportionately affect female and junior enlisted service members. Of the 11.5% of Active Duty marriages that are dual military, enlisted Soldiers make up approximately 80% and officers the remainder. At 39.6%, E5 and E6 service members are the most affected by this proposed policy. Comprising 27.1%, E1-E4 service members are the next most affected population group. Since BAH comprises a larger portion of an enlisted members RMC, the regressive nature of this policy will have a larger negative effect on their total family income (TFI).
Not only will the policy be regressive in nature, the brunt of it will be borne on the backs of junior enlisted service members and their families. Furthermore, female service members comprise 46.2% of all active duty dual military marriages. Given current societal norms for marriage, women tend to be younger and more junior-ranking than their military spouse.
Therefore, if enacted this policy will disproportionately affect female service members. The law reinforces that this type of policy is illegal. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 essentially declares equal pay for equal work. This standard or equality further applies to compensation. Given the discriminatory effects of this proposal, there is a very high probability of legal proceedings taken against the government.
It is undeniable that the military faces uncertain times and decreasing resources. Budget cuts must occur. It is the manner of these proposed cuts that is so disturbing. There are simply more effective and efficient ways to reform BAH that do not disproportionately affect a segment of the military population. One way to accomplish this is to change the way that BAH is calculated or reduce the desired percentage of coverage from the targeted 95% to something lower for all.
Another way is to change the nature of regular military compensation for all military members. If BAH is truly designed to act as a tool to close the civilian and military pay gap and incentivize an all-volunteer force, then why not eliminate it all together and incorporate BAH into a service member’s base pay? The military is designed to be a microcosm of society. This proposed policy is not in sync with societal norms. It penalizes a person’s right to choose to marry who they want, live with who they want, and it disproportionately impacts junior enlisted service members and women. If approved, these types of cuts increase the potential for more drastic cuts.
If this NDAA is ultimately enacted, my husband and I will celebrate our marriage anniversary this year with a marriage penalty that equates to a reduction of 20 per cent of our total family income. Since I am the lower ranking service member in our marriage, the entire reduction in our TFI will come from my RMC. It is an understatement to say that this is both disturbing and stressful. However, what disturbs me more than the actual proposed cut, is the support within the military community for these cuts.
So I leave you with a few words of caution – almost 50% of the military is comprised of service members married to civilians. All of these service members are entitled to a BAH with Dependent Rate, a compensation increase because of their marital status. Using the same logic the Senate applied to the current proposed cuts in the National Defense Authorization Act, why should married military members reap a financial benefit because they choose to marry a civilian?
Furthermore, the amount of potential monetary savings from eliminating such a measure from nearly 50% of the military population would certainly amount to a much larger savings than the current proposed cuts that directly target a little over 5% of the military. However, things do not need to be that draconian. If the Senate truly desires BAH reform, than reform all of it, eliminate it from RMC, and determine how to account for the cost difference to keep civilian and military wages on par to recruit and retain a truly professional All-Volunteer Force.
Jessica D. Grassetti is an Army Strategist stationed in Fort Bragg, NC. She graduated from West Point in 2001 and The University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy in 2011. She has served as an assistant professor of Economics in the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy. She was deployed to Iraq in 2003 to 2004 with the 101st Airborne Division and commanded a Military Police company in Mahmudiyah from 2008-2009. She has also deployed twice to Afghanistan in 2005 and 2007. The views in this piece are her own and not that of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.
 Department of Defense, 2013 Demographics: Profile of Military Communities. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2013).
 A study released last year by LCDR Ken Hockycko helps to clarify a lot of the misconceptions surrounding this emotional issue. It is a comprehensive summary, provides definitions of commonly misunderstood terms, describes the evolution of Military Compensation Reform, explains why BAH is included in RMC, and discusses some of the potentially drastic and disproportionate effects of this proposed policy.