SECAF’s Silence on Housing Allowance Threatens Her Legacy

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As SECAF continues touring bases in Europe, there’s trouble brewing at home with a controversial provision threatening to inflict financial hardship on dual military couples. SECAF is failing to advocate for airmen on this issue, and they’ve noticed.

Back in March, I wrote about a series of policy initiatives rolled out by Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James. At the time, I questioned whether the measures she championed were bold enough to show true commitment to diversity, wondering whether she was instead carefully choosing politically expedient policies that sound swell but actually accomplish very little.

Her deafening silence on an issue figuring prominently in recent budget debates seems to show that James isn’t as committed to making the uniformed Air Force a more welcome environment for women as she might want everyone to believe.

Senate negotiators have burdened their version of this year’s proposed defense spending bill with a troubling and controversial provision that reduces housing allowances for dual military couples. Currently, each servicemember receives a separate allowance, which affirms each member’s independent service and commitment. Under the Senate proposal, every dual military couple (roughly 12% of all married servicemembers) would have one of the two allowances discontinued. This would cut housing pay roughly in half for impacted families while making one servicemember dependent on the other.

This is a dumb idea that will create serious hardships for families who have built their financial plans on existing expectations. Service chiefs should be shouting this idea down forcefully. It’s a huge loss from the status quo at a time when peculiar demands are being placed on families, meaning it will damage morale. It’s also built on a false image of the nature of service for dual military couples, whose plight is already laden with extra layers of hardship and separation commonly ignored by legislators caricaturing these servants as somehow unduly advantaged under the current law. Families with two servicemembers are not valid prey for budget vultures. They are, in fact, making service to the nation their entire family business, even as personnel policies make it nigh on impossible for them to balance dual service with any semblance of a normal life.

Given James’ diversity initiatives, there are additional reasons she should be opposed. 46% of married women in the armed services are married to other military members (as opposed 6% of married men). That means this cut will fall disproportionately on women. To the extent families have built future plans in reliance on each military member being paid a housing allowance, pulling the rug out from underneath these families will break many banks, with women bearing a higher share of the resulting financial trauma.

Important social questions have also been raised. Some wonder whether women working to leave unhealthy or abusive marriages will find themselves financially trapped into staying in bad situations. At the same time, others have wondered whether the provision – which could take effect as early as this October – will create perverse incentives encouraging dual military couples to refrain from getting married or to get divorced in order to maintain financial viability. For those who have housing bills predicated on the status quo, such incentives could be powerful.

The Air Force’s silence is peculiar and deafening. Not only because James, as a female service secretary, is an important and leading voice on issues of diversity, equality, and inclusiveness, but because the of the contrasting outspokenness of others.

Master Chief Petty Office of the Navy Michael Stevens is on record worrying that the proposal could be “devastating to military families.” The Defense Department is known to oppose the measure. Even President Obama has said he does not support it.

But one of the reasons the measure continues to attach itself to this year’s spending bill is that important voices like James’ have remained too quiet. Her unwillingness to take a prominent stand against the measure – even under the political cover of an administration and department openly opposed to it — blatantly contradicts her stated goal of raising the number of women serving in the Air Force. It’s a political green light to her legislative counterparts, emboldening them and weakening their opponents.

It’s impossible to know what James’ silence on this issue really means. It could be that she’s simply unwilling to wade into contentious waters at a time when she and Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh have already been politically battered this budget cycle. It might be that she simply hasn’t taken the time to focus and understand the issue, and therefore doesn’t want to speak out.

But one thing is for certain. Her silence is deafening and too obvious to escape the notice of the rank and file. James reportedly ducked a question on the housing allowance issue within the last 24 hours during an All Call at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. It didn’t take long for news of her dodge to reach social media outlets.

SECAF speaking at a recent All Call at Ramstein AB. As she travels the globe interacting with airmen, their policy concerns are being litigated in the corridors of power in DC. Is she doing enough to advance the interests of the rank and file?
SECAF speaking at a recent All Call at Ramstein AB. As she travels the globe interacting with airmen, their policy concerns are being litigated in the corridors of power in DC. Is she doing enough to advance the interests of the rank and file?

Airmen are taking note of the stark divergence between her previous rhetoric and current inaction, and the delta doesn’t reflect well upon her or the scores of other generals and senior executives refusing to take a position on an issue that will impact half of the service’s married female membership.

Overwhelmingly, airmen just want James to weigh in one way or another. If she’s opposed to the cut, her saying so might go a long way toward fighting its implementation. If she’s in favor of it, her saying so and explaining why would allow her to be held accountable for her position, which is essential to her credibility. Airmen don’t believe this is an issue where she can simply skate by without having anything to say.

And they’re right.

Any issue that will have such massive financial consequences for airmen is arguably one deserving of public senior leader attention. But an issue with particular consequences for female airmen is not one this SECAF can sit out, especially given her previous positions. James’ silence is getting construed as acquiescence, and stands to deeply tarnish her record in an important way should the measure become law.

For the Air Force and its leaders, this is a fleeting moment where principled leadership should trump stock politics. It’s a moment where advocacy requires more than slick platitudes. Will SECAF advance her legacy as a diversity champion? … or fade into history as an inconsequential figure during a consequential time?

The choice is hers. But not for long.

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