Lawmakers make another run at repealing DoD per diem cuts

For the third year in a row, members of the House and Senate are trying to undo an unpopular 2014 Defense Department policy change that drastically cut reimbursement rates for military members and civilians on long-term travel.

The legislation, introduced by Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), would prohibit the department from paying lower per-diem rates based solely on how long an employee or service member is on temporary duty. Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) introduced a similar bill in the House.

The lawmakers object to a November 2014 regulation in which DoD, as part of a larger move to cut travel costs, decided government travelers who were in one place for more than a month at a time should be reimbursed for lodging, meals and incidental expenses at a lower rate: 75 percent of the the usual per-diem for employees on TDY for between 30 and 180 days, and 55 percent the normal rate for those on assignment for 180 days or longer.

The regulation allowed for waivers, but only if DoD’s commercial travel office determined there was no way for the reduced rate to cover actual lodging expenses for an employee’s trip away from home; the cuts to meals and incidental expenses were non-negotiable, though.

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“Military members and Department of Defense civilians should not have to worry about potential financial burdens and red tape related to travel,” Hirono said in a statement. “This commonsense legislation will continue to allow Department of Defense employees to do their jobs without jumping through unnecessary hoops.”

DoD maintains it was never its intention to put financial burdens on travelers, but that paying for long-term trips at per-night reimbursement rates that are meant to cover short hotel stays doesn’t make sense.

The change, officials said, was intended to encourage travel managers to look for other options. For instance, in most locations, a two-month agreement on a furnished apartment or an extended-stay hotel is likely to be a lot cheaper than 60 consecutive nights at government-approved hotel rates. Those properties, the theory goes, also offer amenities like kitchenettes and microwaves, so travelers don’t need comparatively pricey restaurant fare at every meal.

But labor groups say that theory hasn’t worked in practice.

“The feedback from our members has been overwhelming in opposition to these cuts,” seven associations representing Defense civilians and hoteliers wrote in a recent letter to lawmakers, claiming that the cuts have forced travelers to stay in “substandard” housing or complete an “unwieldy waiver process” when they travel to locations where there are no discounts to be found for longer stays.

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“Currently, many of those who travel for long-term duty assignments do so regularly, and have a wealth of knowledge and experience, which is important to the military mission. The cuts … create a disincentive for these employees to continue to volunteer for these long-term travel assignments, and penalizes the military and civilian employees who have already been asked to spend a significant amount of time away from their homes and families.”

Congressional opponents of the per-diem cuts have tried unsuccessfully to repeal them in each of the last two annual Defense authorization bills. Last year’s House version included language that would have restored the payments in their entirety, but the Senate prevailed with a version that simply gives the secretaries of each military department the option to give employees the full per-diem rate if the lower rate isn’t enough “under the circumstances of the TDY assignment.”

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