“The House Armed Services Committee marked up a defense authorization bill for 2020 that will keep America safe and defend our allies and interests abroad. It is shameful that all but two Republicans on the Committee chose to make this vote partisan. In doing so, they voted to deny our troops a pay raise, reject critical defense initiatives, and ignore the requests of our military.”
— House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), in a news release, June 13, 2019
“Let’s be clear about what the @HASCRepublicans voted against last night: - A MUCH NEEDED PAY RAISE FOR OUR TROOPS.”
— Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), in a tweet, June 13, 2019
This claim from Hoyer and Hill — that Republicans voted against raises for the military — is deceptive because federal law already grants automatic pay increases to the troops every year.
But before we get into that, some background: The House Armed Services Committee passed a bill authorizing $733 billion in defense spending for 2020. President Trump had requested $750 billion; Democrats removed $17 billion. (Hoyer called it “unnecessary funding that would have required severe and draconian cuts to our investments in education and skills training, health care access, and infrastructure development.”)
Most Republicans on the committee voted against the bill, arguing, among other things, that it did not provide enough funding for the military. Democrats clapped back, accusing Republicans of voting against bigger paychecks for the troops. Did they?
Trump’s budget proposal includes “a 2020 military pay raise of 3.1 percent — the largest increase in a decade.”
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) working its way through the House includes funding for “a 3.1 percent pay increase,” according to Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee. The ranking Republican on the panel, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, and other GOP lawmakers say they support the 3.1 percent raises.
That’s plenty of agreement, so what happened?
When the Armed Services Committee passed the bill by a 33-to-24 vote on June 13, only two Republicans, Reps. Don Bacon (Neb.) and Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), voted in favor. Other GOP members said the sprawling defense bill was a package deal and that the package, as a whole, wasn’t good enough.
“This year’s National Defense Authorization Act is an opportunity to maintain the momentum we need to rebuild our military, reform its broken acquisition system, and meet our commitment to our men and women in uniform,” Thornberry said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the bill reported out of committee does not seize that opportunity, and sadly takes our military backwards in several key areas.”
The bottom line, however, is that the military pay raises don’t depend on this bill. If the NDAA failed to pass, the 3.1 percent raises would remain on track, said Todd Harrison, a defense spending expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“If Congress does nothing, if they vote down the NDAA and they never pass it, then the Trump administration can go ahead and give everyone a pay raise of 3.1 percent,” Harrison said. “It’s in statute that they’re already supposed to give them a pay raise at that level, and there’s nothing stopping them.”
Federal law already provides annual increases in basic pay for members of the uniformed services. The raises kick in automatically at the start of every calendar year. Since 2007, the raise has been equal to the growth in the Employment Cost Index — specifically, the ECI’s measure of “wages and salaries, private industry workers” as of the end of September. Wages and salaries for private industry workers rose 3.1 percent in the year-long period through September 2018, according to ECI data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
So when Trump, Smith, Thornberry and others come out in support of the 3.1 percent raises for the military, they’re backing something that has been required by law for more than a decade. “It’s nothing more and nothing less,” Harrison said.
The same law lets the president and Congress adjust the pay hikes before they take effect. President Barack Obama, for example, requested smaller raises than required by law for 2014, 2015 and 2016. President George W. Bush and Congress went above the required pay increases for 2008 and 2009.
But no one is proposing an adjustment for 2020. The whole process is on autopilot this year, as it was last year.
The NDAA for 2019 has no language authorizing military pay raises. Yet they kicked in anyway on Jan. 1, at the ECI level of 2.6 percent.
“The John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2019 (P.L. 115-232) contained no provision relating to a general increase in basic pay and thereby left the automatic adjustment ... in place,” according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
In a report from the House and Senate conference committee that wrote the final version of the 2019 bill, lawmakers said they did not include language to authorize the pay increases even though the Senate had offered such a provision. The report simply pointed to the law providing automatic pay raises.
Here’s what it said:
The Senate amendment contained a provision (sec. 601) that would authorize a pay raise of 2.6 percent for all members of the uniformed services effective January 1, 2019.
The House bill contained no similar provision.
The Senate recedes.
The conferees note that current law authorizes automatic military pay raises consistent with the Economic Cost Index, which for calendar year 2019 amounts to a 2.6 percent raise in basic pay for all members of the uniformed services.
Hoyer’s staff told us the NDAA for 2020 does not include language authorizing the pay raises, like the Senate offered last year, but it does include money to cover the cost.
“The legislation includes the funding to effect the pay increase,” Hoyer spokeswoman Mariel Saez said. “By including that funding, the bill authorizes the increase. By voting against the bill, Republicans are voting against that increase, along with any number of other critical provisions for our forces.”
Claude Chafin, a spokesman for Republicans on the Armed Services Committee, said GOP lawmakers are concerned the bill does not fund the raises adequately. The NDAA provides $143.5 billion for military personnel appropriations, which is $1.2 billion less than Trump requested.
Harrison said even though the 3.1 percent raises are automatic, ensuring them in the NDAA is significant. “By putting it in there, you do guarantee it,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Hill did not respond to requests for comment.
(Update, June 19): After this fact check was published, the Department of Defense responded to our questions. A Pentagon spokeswoman, Jessica R. Maxwell, confirmed our conclusion that the 3.1 percent military pay raises scheduled for 2020 do not depend on the NDAA’s passage this year. Here are her comments:
By operation of law (37 USC §1009), the annual military basic pay raise is set at the percent change in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employment Cost Index — a measure of changes in wages and salaries for private industry workers as measured by the 12-month change ending September 30 of the previous fiscal year (i.e., September 30, 2018 sets the default basic pay raise for January 1, 2020) — unless superseded by law or by the imposition of an alternate pay raise by the President before September 1.
The President’s Budget proposed a 3.1 percent basic pay increase for Fiscal Year 2020, which is consistent with the “Employment Cost Index, Private Industry, Wages And Salaries, 12-Month Percent Change” for the period ending September 30, 2018. Therefore, unless Congress enacts legislation setting a different military basic pay raise or the President imposes an alternate pay raise before September 1, 2019, the military basic pay raise is automatic and will increase by 3.1 percent on January 1, 2020.
The Pinocchio Test
Most Republicans on the Armed Services Committee voted against the NDAA, which authorizes the 3.1 percent pay increases. So the claim from Hoyer and Hill has some merit. But not much.
This is a good example of how politicians can take a sprawling piece of legislation, cherry-pick one part, take it out of context and gin up an attack line.
Both Democrats failed to acknowledge that a different federal law — on the books for more than a decade — provides the 3.1 percent raises automatically. Because of that law, military pay increases kicked in at the start of 2019 even though Congress did not mention them in the defense authorization bill. As Harrison said, “there’s nothing stopping” the Trump administration from handing out the raises in 2020, regardless of what happens with the bill in the House.
We give Three Pinocchios to Hoyer and Hill.
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