The military would see a 3 percent pay bump next year, an increase in the overall number of troops serving and new mandates on improving family housing under a $740.5 billion budget policy plan approved by a key Senate panel this week.
The measure, which still faces a long congressional path to becoming law, also includes several provisions related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the continuing nationwide protests related to racial inequality.
Senate defense lawmakers on Thursday praised their draft of the annual defense authorization bill as an important bipartisan step forward for continued military investment and reform.
If it survives negotiations in coming months, the final bill will mark the 60th consecutive year Congress has passed the legislation, an unusual mark of cooperation in an increasingly politically divided environment.
“This bill is, to its core, bipartisan, reflecting equal input from Republicans and Democrats alike,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla. “Building on the last two years, this year’s NDAA charts a decisive course of action to implement the National Defense Strategy, regain a credible military deterrent, and ultimately achieve a lasting peace.”
For service members, the most visible provision of the massive policy measure is the annual military pay raise, set at 3 percent for 2021.
The mark matches the White House request for next year and federal calculation for the expected increase in civilian sector raises. The measure also includes re-authorizations for 30 different bonuses and specialty pays.
For junior enlisted troops, the proposed raise would amount to roughly $860 more a year in pay. For senior enlisted and junior officers, the hike equals about $1,500 more. An O-4 with 12 years service would see more than $2,800 extra next year under the increase.
Senators also went along with White House plans for a military end strength increase of nearly 6,000 troops.
Under the plan, Army active-duty personnel would grow by 5,000 to 485,000 soldiers next year. The Navy’s end strength would rise even more, up about 6,200 troops to 346,730.
Air Force numbers would increase by about 675 personnel, to 333,475 airmen. The Marine Corps would be the only service to see a decrease, down 6,200 troops to 180,000 total.
Building off of last year’s authorization bill — which included a host of military housing reform measures prompted by widespread reports of poor-quality privatized housing for military families — the proposal requires new hiring authorities to oversee outside contractors and specifically prohibits leasing of “any substandard family housing.”
Senators would also require the Defense Department inspector general to conduct an audit of medical conditions of troops and family members who have lived in problematic privatized housing in the past, to see if the locations may have contributed to long-term health problems.
Lawmakers also singled out daycare availability as a military readiness issue for troops with young families, instructing military leaders to develop new benefits packages to recruit and retain child care workers at military bases.
The annual authorization bill typically takes a long-term approach to military policy changes, with provisions on current events often left to later years’ legislation.
However, in reaction to recent concerns about military members potentially being used to quell domestic demonstrations, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., successfully pushed for an amendment to prevent the use of military funds or personnel “against American citizens exercising their first amendment rights.”
And senators also included several provisions related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has sickened nearly 2 million Americans and resulted in more than 112,000 deaths.
Among them are $44 million in new funding for vaccine research already underway at the Department of Defense, new retirement relief language for troops affected by stop movement orders related to the pandemic, and expanded research by defense officials into the morale and readiness impact of the nationwide health crisis.
As they have in past years, lawmakers prohibited the Defense Department from considering another base closure round and from closing down the detention facilities at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
No time frame has been released for when the full Senate may vote on the authorization bill draft. The House Armed Services Committee is expected to release details of its version of the legislation later this month.
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.