April 17, 2017

By: Leo Shane III

WASHINGTON — The latest congressional impasse over the federal budget could hit troops’ bonuses starting next month, unless a deal is reached in the next few weeks.

Pentagon leaders have been warning lawmakers for weeks that some of their proposed budget fixes could leave military units without enough funds for equipment maintenance, training hours and base programs.

But the looming payroll problem facing the military could take anticipated specialty pays and retention bonuses away from troops as budget planners scramble to fill gaps in their available funding.

“If we don’t pass budget with the (president’s) supplemental, it’s going to hurt (troops’) pay, it’s going to hurt other forms of benefits, going to hurt services,” said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley in testimony before Congress earlier this month. “And it’s going to crush morale. It’ll be very devastating.”

Since last fall, most of the federal government — including the Defense Department — has been operating under a series of continuing budget resolutions, with funding roughly equal to fiscal 2016 levels. That provides enough money for agencies to avoid a shutdown, but not enough for starting new programs or covering inflation costs.

That creates bookkeeping headaches for a number of accounts, but an extra problem for personnel expenses.

In December, Congress authorized a 2.1 percent pay increase for servicemembers in 2017. They also included several hundred million dollars extra in the last continuing budget resolution to cover those additional pay costs.

But military officials worry that another continuing resolution might not have that money, if lawmakers follow through with promises to finish fiscal 2017 at last year’s funding levels.

“If the Army is capped with the same spending levels as FY16 under a year-long CR, the 2.1 percent will result in less money available in the budget to pay for other items, such as recruiting and retention incentives to support the (congressionally mandate) end strength increase,” officials said in a statement.

Even with a little extra money, that might not be enough to pay for a variety of recruiting and retention incentives.

“We would need to move money from other programs to pay for these incentives but we will need congressional approval to do so, based on the amount of funds that would need to be moved,” Army officials said.

At the same hearing as Milley’s warnings, Air Force Gen. David Goldfein promised that “when it comes to pay, we will meet those obligations” to servicemembers.

“The issue is we’re going to have to go somewhere in that military personnel account to find that money,” he said.

Defense lawmakers have also railed against full-year continuing resolution, saying it will cripple military readiness and long-term modernization plans.

But so far Republicans and Democrats have made slow progress on President Trump’s $30 billion supplemental budget request for defense spending for the final five months of fiscal 2017, or even an alternate plan to keep federal agencies operating under fiscal 2016 levels.

The budget extension runs out on April 28. Congress returns from a two-week district break on April 24.