By Tom Philpott
Military Update focuses on issues affecting pay, benefits and lifestyle of active and retired servicepeople. Its author, Tom Philpott, is a Virginia-based syndicated columnist and freelance writer. He has covered military issues for almost 25 years, including six years as editor of Navy Times. For 17 years he worked as a writer and senior editor for Army Times Publishing Co. Philpott, 49, enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1973 and served as an information officer from 1974-77.
How far does $1 billion go when divided among 1.4 million active servicemembers and 875,000 drilling reservists? Perhaps farther than you think, when headlines begin to shape service member expectations.
Consider HR 244, a bill introduced Jan. 30 by Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, the ranking Democrat on the House appropriation subcommittee on defense. HR 244 calls for a 7.3 percent pay raise for service members next January, and thereby signals strong bipartisan support for President Bush's call to add $1 billion to military pay.
Because Murtha, a retired reserve Marine Corps officer beginning his 15th term in Congress, is influential with colleagues, that 7.3 percent raise already looks promising. But from where did the figure come?
During the presidential campaign, no one in the Bush camp had explained what$1 billion more in military pay would mean in terms of an across-the-board increase. A billion sounded big and that was good enough.
In early December, weeks before Bushs inauguration, Army Times reported that Bushs $1 billion, on top of a projected raise of 4.8 percent, would support a 7.3 percent hike for all servicemembers in 2002. But was 4.8 percent on the mark? And would $1 billion buy another 2.5percent? It turns out those figures, from the Bush transition team, were a little high.
The Defense Department tracks wage growth in the private sector using the Bureau of Labors Employment Cost Index. Changes in the ECI from October1999 through September 2000 are to be used to determine the January 2002 military raise, in part. Under a law enacted two years ago, military pay hikes through 2006 are to be set a half percentage point above yearly ECI changes, to help members close a vaguely defined pay gap with peers in the private sector.
Last fall, the ECI came in at 4.1 percent for the previous 12 months, which would justify a 4.6 raise (ECI plus 0.5 percent) next January. That was 0.2 percent lower than the figure used in the overall7.3 percent estimate. Then Pentagon officials revised the estimate of what $1 billion would provide an additional across-the-board raise of 2.2 percent, not 2.5.
Combining 2.2 with 4.6 percent leaves us with a Bush-enhanced raise of 6.8 percent, not 7.3 percent. So should service members be upset that the first estimate, announced in headlines an inch-and-a-half high, was wrong?
Not unless they are turned off by possibility of pocketing that extra half percent. To an enlisted member, E-5, weighing re-enlistment. that extra half-percent raise would mean $9.50 more a month.
Murtha, after all, now supports 7.3 percent, and has the clout to convince some colleagues to do the same.
If the 7.3 percent raise is approved, military pay will grow next year by $227 million more than Bush had promised.
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