DoD asks Congress for bigger pay raise, FOIA exemptions

The Defense Department is sending its ideas to Congress for the next legislative cycle and they include a larger than normal bump in pay for service members as well as some changes to government transparency.

The set of proposals for the 2018 defense authorization bill asks Congress to match last year’s pay raise of 2.1 percent for service members. That could mark two years in a row of a 2.1 percent increase.

Last year’s increase was the largest in the past five years and exceeded the Obama administration’s request of a 1.6 percent increase for 2017.

DoD also asks Congress to extend expiring bonus and special pay authorities for reservists experiencing frequent mobilizations, health care professionals and nuclear officers

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Health care professionals and nuclear officers are two occupations DoD has been hurting for in recent years.

The proposals also ask Congress to extend DoD’s authority to provide temporary increases in basic housing allowance for another year.

To get the pay raise and extensions Congress will have to put the provisions in the 2018 defense authorization bill.

Leaders of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel told Federal News Radio last month they were still thinking about where the pay raise should stand.

Chairman Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) said he thinks the pay raise will stay with what the law requires.

The pay raise, by law, is tied to the Employment Cost Index, a measurement of private-sector wage increases.

“There may be a temptation to go above that and a temptation to go below that particularly on the Senate side, but I don’t see that happening, I think we are going to stick with current law,” Coffman said.

Ranking Member Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) was a little more open to changing the rates.

“I think we will have to look at it. In the end we are increasing the budget for the Department of Defense. I always wonder how much of that trickles down to the service member and how much is really padding for those who are providing spare parts or developing the next weapons system and I want to make sure we continue to provide a sound salary and benefits, but consistent with what our budget is,” Speier said.

BRAC

DoD already made it clear with its budget rollout that it wants another round of Base Realignment and Closures (BRAC) in 2021.

The legislative proposals spend more than 60 pages outlining the exact process for BRAC. Much of the details are in-the-weeds explanations of the rules governing the process.

But the basic timeline requires DoD to create a force structure plan with the probable end strength levels and major military units needed to meet threats. DoD will provide a description of the infrastructure needed to accommodate the force, an economic analysis of the effect of the closure or reassignment of bases and a complete list of military installations.

The DoD comptroller will evaluate the plans and the need for closures.

The Pentagon will decide what installations will be closed based on mission requirements, the effect on readiness and the condition of the land. Other things taken into consideration are the ability of the installation to accommodate contingency, surge or mobilization requirements and the cost of operations and manpower.

A commission would convene in 2021 to decide what installations should be closed and then the President would review and approve the closures.

DoD is already trying to alleviate Congress’ fears over BRAC.

“If the Congress were to authorize BRAC in the ’18 [defense] authorization bill, upon enactment we would begin organizing and start conducting the analysis. It’s an extraordinarily comprehensive and frankly difficult analysis to conduct and I know that from experience,” Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and Environment Peter Potochney said during a June 6 Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies hearing. “It would lead to recommendations that the Secretary of Defense would provide to the commission in April of 2021. So we would have a robust amount of time to do this extensive and frankly exhaustive work.”

FOIA changes

The Pentagon is making another push to clamp down on the information it shares with the public.

The legislative proposals tweak what information can be shared through the Freedom of Information Act to exempt military tactics, techniques, procedures and rules of engagement.

This isn’t the first time DoD tried to get a pass on this information.

Three years ago it lobbied Congress for broader authority keep the information from public distribution.

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) intervened. DoD tried again last year with a narrower definition of what could be withheld, but Congress ended up removing the provision from its bill.

Now DoD is trying again, but there are still some concerns.

Liz Hempowicz, policy counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, told Federal News Radio that DoD’s concern is when lots of information is taken together it may compromise troops’ positions, but that hasn’t happened in the past.

“People from DoD were asked by congressional staffers who were working on this whether or not they’ve had to release information previously in a FOIA request that they’d have to withhold under this exemption and [DoD] hasn’t,” Hempowicz said. “So, it’s not like there is some need they are trying to meet by having this exemption broadened.”

Hempowicz added that the provision could be used to blanket other DoD internal documents that might not compromise troops, but are important to the public like sexual assault statistics.