Married soldiers stand to lose in NDAA
© Greg Nash

I am an American Soldier. When I raised my right hand more than 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 - also an American Soldier - when I became his wife. If Congress approves the proposed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2017, this second oath will cause me to 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 couples and service members that share dwellings. This is the second year that the Senate NDAA proposal includes this provision. Last year the White House and Military Chiefs disagreed with this legislation due to its sudden negative financial impact. Despite this, the Senate recommended 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 a principle component of Regular Military Compensation (RMC) and the second is the regressive and discriminatory nature of the cut. 

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Arguments stating that BAH is not a part of compensation or income are incorrect 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 you can and should combine a dual-military couple’s RMC both illegal and insulting. The insinuation that we are somehow a "two for one" deal for the Nation, and that this allows the U.S. government to discount our individually earned compensation packages, is ridiculous.  The proposed legislation's message is, in effect, that my service is worth less than my unmarried counterpart of the same rank, simply because I chose to marry another service member. 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. 

Furthermore, the Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation applies RMC as the standard of compensation used to achieve civilian to military pay parity for the all-volunteer force. These reviews have never suggested that married service members should earn less. Enacting this policy, without accounting for it with an increase in basic pay, will incentivize people to resign. There will be some that argue 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.

What is even more disturbing about these BAH cuts is that they would disproportionately affect junior enlisted and female service members. As such, the proposed policy is regressive in two ways and discriminatory by gender. Almost 40% affected by this policy are midcareer enlisted members; 27% are junior enlisted. Since BAH comprises a larger portion of an enlisted member’s RMC, this policy will have a greater negative effect on their total family income (TFI). For example, a junior enlisted (E4) service member married to another service member and stationed at Fort Bragg, forgoing BAH under the new policy, stands to lose 28% of their RMC. A Colonel married to another service member and also stationed at Fort Bragg will only forfeit 14% of her RMC. Thus, the brunt of this regressive policy will be borne on the backs of junior enlisted service members and their families. Furthermore, female service members comprise 46.2% of dual-military marriages, compared to 6.8% of male service members. If enacted this policy will disproportionately affect female service members. The resulting pay disparity would result in women doing the same work for less pay.

The military faces uncertain times and decreasing resources. Budget cuts are likely to occur. It is the manner of these proposed cuts that is so disconcerting. There are more efficient ways to reform BAH that do not disproportionately affect such a small segment of the military population. Alternative options are to change the calculation method for BAH or reduce the coverage rate slightly (say by 5%) and across the board for all service members.

If this NDAA is enacted, my husband and I will celebrate our anniversary with a marriage penalty that reduces our TFI by 20 per cent. Since I am the junior ranking service member in our marriage, the entire reduction will come from my RMC. It is an understatement to say that this is stressful. If the Senate truly desires BAH reform, there are more equitable options worthy of pursuit. 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 whom they want, live with whom they want, and it disproportionately impacts junior enlisted service members and women.

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.