Points of Interest: Food Allowance Reform Helps Some, Hurts Others

By Tom Philpott

To cover the cost of providing partial BAS to 416,000 junior enlisted across all services, yearly BAS raises for career personnel, including all officers, would be frozen at 1% per year for the next five years. Their food allowance would lose one-fifth of its value to inflation by 2002, the equivalent of $30-$40 per month.

More troubling for many officers, the long-awaited BAS reform does not address an irksome gap between officer BAS, set at $154.16 a month, and enlisted BAS, set at $220.80.

BAS has been roundly criticized for many years. Depending upon a member's service, assignment, rank, or even marital status, the allowance either pays too much, too little, or can be withheld altogether when government meals are available.

Since 1974, BAS raises have been tied to the percentage increase each year in basic pay, which in turn is linked to private sector wage growth. This linkage, critics argue, has allowed enlisted BAS to grow faster than the cost of food. Consequently, BAS has become a lot to lose when sailors and Marines deploy and meals are provided.

The problem drew national attention during the Persian Gulf War when U.S. ground forces saw BAS replaced by meals-ready-to-eat. Soldiers complained about losing what was then just under $200 a month for the privilege of going to war. More problems arose during joint-service peacekeeping missions. The Air Force likes to pay deployed members not only BAS but per diem; other services suspend BAS and don't authorize per diem. The pay disparity caused morale problems in joint-service environments, particularly for some Marine units.

Joint-service commanders now have authority to order equal pay treatment during deployment but pay disparities remain and can become stark during training exercises.

Various Pentagon studies have proposed ambitious reforms such as rolling BAS into basic pay and equalizing officer and enlisted BAS. But after a year-long study, a joint-service working group agreed to the more modest proposal now before Congress. Clearly, options were limited by a requirement that the government bear no additional cost.

If Congress approves the BAS plan, some service members will be delighted, others upset. Here's what will happen:

Next January, all enlisted members now denied BAS—soldiers on field duty, airmen using dining halls, sailors and Marines on board ship—will begin to receive a partial payment. Set initially at $9.80 a month, partial BAS will rise to $44.45 by 2002.

By 2003, inflation and the 1% pay freeze will have brought full enlisted BAS close to the actual cost of food, as tracked by a Department of Agriculture index. At that point, partial BAS will disappear and all members will begin to draw "full" BAS.

But there's a catch: Anyone assigned to ship, field duty, or eating in mess halls routinely would begin to pay for that chow.

The actual cost will be less than full BAS, officials contend, so barracks dwellers and young sailors still could pocket about $48 per month more than they do now.

Proponents emphasize the positive: All enlisted would get some BAS and no one's pay actually would be cut.

But the concept of enhancing BAS for some service members at the expense of others has sparked vigorous opposition from military associations. Steve Strobridge, deputy director of government relations for The Retired Officers Association (TROA), said military pay raises have been capped 11 of the last 15 years so no one can claim service people are overpaid. Yet the administration, he said, is suggesting that they are.

If one element of pay, BAS, exceeds actual food costs, Strobridge said, the proper solution is not to cap BAS raises but to begin to shift BAS money into basic pay. "It's not overall compensation at issue but the relative share that goes into the allowance," said Strobridge, a retired Air Force colonel and former compensation chief of that service.

Taking future BAS "away from one member to give to another . . . only exacerbates an already bad situation for people getting BAS," he said. The services should be fighting to restore pay comparability with the private sector, Strobridge said. "This moves in the wrong direction." The proposal won't solve the problem of lost BAS during deployment either, Strobridge said. BAS pay caps "only apply a little more pain permanently so that it doesn't hurt so much when they deploy. They will still lose a big chunk of change during deployment."

Finally, Strobridge argued, if another goal of BAS reform is allowance equity, some action should he taken to raise officer BAS closer to enlisted levels.

Strobridge said a coalition of military associations, including TROA, hopes to testify before Congress against weaknesses in the BAS reform plan later this year.

 

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