Air Force Secretary Publicly Opposes Senate Cuts to Troop Housing Allowances

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James has had a mixed record on legislative and budget issues impacting the rank and file. Her opposition to a Senate proposal to slash housing pay is an important moment for her legacy as a caretaker of airmen.
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James has had a mixed record on legislative and budget issues impacting the rank and file. Her opposition to a Senate proposal to slash housing pay is an important moment for her legacy as a caretaker of airmen. (Photo: Air Force).

After an extended silence that convinced many she was tacitly siding with Senate negotiators bent on cutting service members’ housing pay, Secretary of the Air Force (SECAF) Deborah Lee James publicly voiced her opposition to the controversial proposal on Tuesday.

JQP pushed SECAF for a solid week on the issue, urging her to take a public position on the proposed changes to Section 604 in the Senate’s mark of the FY16 defense bill. Those changes stand to restrict housing allowances for military members with active duty spouses, taking an estimated $12,000 to $24,000 out of the annual compensation packages of roughly 80,000 service members.

The Air Force stands to be hardest hit, with roughly 30,000 airmen taking a debilitating pay cut as early as October of this year. The cuts would fall disproportionately on female airmen, 28% of whom stand to lose household income at a time when SECAF is championing initiatives designed to recruit and retain them in greater numbers, which she rightly considers critical to the future vitality of American airpower.

After an ad hoc social media campaign jammed her official Facebook page with queries about her position on the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) measure, James made the following post early Tuesday morning:

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While some continue to wonder whether her support is earnest or simply a response to pressure, it’s hard to not view James’ public commitment to preserving airman compensation positively. Should the measure survive budget negotiations and appear in the final bill, airmen can now apparently rely on her public support in a prospective campaign to encourage a Presidential veto or repeal the measure after passage.

While such gambits may seem far-fetched, their occasional recurrence fits perfectly within an ongoing tug-of-war over military pay and benefits waged continually since the pressures of sequestration began squeezing absurd responses out of defense officials and legislators. It was eighteen months ago that I appeared on national television as part of a grass-roots campaign to undo the retroactive raiding of veteran pensions, a measure thankfully repealed, but only after the application of political pressure by veterans and advocates to oppose what was seen by many as a moral violation as well as an official betrayal.

There’s an important tie-in here. In the COLA repeal campaign, veterans and affiliates battled back against a money grab, barely prevailed, and warned that it was just the beginning (my words to fellow advocates at that time: “stay loose … you’ll be needed again”). That grim prediction turned out to be correct.

Since that modest victory, we’ve taken many losses, including cuts to housing allowances, pay raises falling continually behind inflation, erosion of commissary benefits, a precipitous decline in the funding of family support networks, and proposals for an overhauled pension system that would offer veterans less favorable terms than they have under the current system. All as service members absorb a punishing and perpetual demand signal for far-flung service on short notice, under great hardship, in defense of indefinite vagaries … and all as rampant waste continues to manifest in overgrown acquisition programs, bloated staffs, and excessive executive trappings.

The Senate’s BAH grab is just the latest attempt treat veteran compensation as a vulture’s quarry. Politicians too frightened of their own donors or too enamored of hearing themselves play to a populist political base to do what’s best for the country continually lurch at the wallets of service members rather than face the tough decisions of national defense.

Our country has a fundamental mismatch between its appetite for activist foreign activity and the resources necessary to sustain it. That mismatch threatens our future, starting with the near-term health of the all-volunteer military we’ve come to take for granted. Until we break the link between campaign spending and legislative influence, this pattern of decay will continue, demanding continual vigilance and energetic resistance.

Even with such resistance, absurdities are becoming all too common: airmen currently risking their lives against the Islamic State face a cut to their basic compensation as they wage a war for which members of the general public have not been asked to pay one thin dime. When warfighters are essentially paying for their own bullets, we have a problem.

Whatever the larger implications, SECAF’s words struck a chord with airmen. As this story went to press, her Facebook post had more than 2100 likes, 500 shares, and 120 comments. This level of engagement dwarfs normal response patterns, indicating just how many people are tuned into this issue and how anxiously they’ve anticipated her involvement.

What does this all mean? Like most things behind the veil of legislative backroom dealing, it’s anyone’s guess. Whether the proposed change to BAH gets whittled out during negotiation or sneaks into the final bill will come down to how much of the oppositional angst created by the proposal is channeled into negotiations – applied as pressure upon legislators and their staffs. Some of that pressure will hopefully come from James working with increased public energy as well as behind behind the scenes to advance the position she has now staked out. This is a reasonable expectation given that the Air Force would be hardest hit.

But the most important pressure must come from individual activism. Now is the time to call, email, and interact via social media with your local legislators, explaining to them what the measure would do to your family or why you believe it’s wrong for your teammates and your service. Surf over to or to easily identify and contact your representatives.

As a side note, the social media chain of events leading to James’ public proclamation on BAH provides a window for her and her staff into how she is perceived by at-large airmen. Many have been frustrated by her seemingly unending travel schedule and constant preening with airmen while the important issues unfolding in Washington starve for her genuine advocacy. 

Personally, I find her milquetoast approach to this issue unconvincing and marginally satisfactory at best. A strong leader would have not only officially opposed the measure in writing as part of the budget process, but would have written an OpEd in a national paper denouncing the idea of a cut that would hurt airmen in a time of war, especially given its disproportionate impact on women at a moment when making the Air Force more welcome for them is an important goal. A strong leader wouldn’t have needed any prompting to do so. Given the level of energy invested in public relations in today’s Air Force, it’s disappointing that James hasn’t put that machine to work to shape this particular conversation.

Still, there’s reason to think that the BAH issue could be a turning point in SECAF’s relationship with airmen if she and her staff take the cues it offers and adapt her approach. Let’s hope that’s just one positive outcome to grow from her important public position on this matter.

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