Troops set for largest pay boost in 22 years under defense plan

by Tommy Grant

Troops will see their largest pay raise in 22 years in January and Pentagon officials will launch a study into boosting pay for junior service members under legislation headed to President Joe Biden’s desk to become law.

On Thursday, House lawmakers voted to advance the annual defense authorization bill by a vote of 310-118. One day earlier, Senate lawmakers approved the legislation by a 87-13 vote.

The moves send the authorization bill — a massive defense policy measure which also outlines budget priorities for fiscal 2024 — to the White House for the 63rd consecutive year, a nearly unmatched level of bipartisan cooperation amid consistent political fights on Capitol Hill. Biden has already signaled that he will sign the measure.

Supporters praised the measure as a critical step in ensuring military readiness, preserving support for military families and positioning the Pentagon for future threats.

“You cannot oppose this bill and claim that you support the national security of this country,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. “Nothing is more important to the national security of this country than the people who we ask to defend it. This bill protects them.”

The $874 billion bill closely tracks with Biden’s proposed spending level for fiscal 2024, but lawmakers will still need to approve an appropriations bill next month to actually boost the money available for the Defense Department.

The measure will allow a host of policy issues, meanwhile, to move ahead in coming weeks, including a 5.2% military pay raise in 2024. The pay bump is higher than the 4.6% pay raise troops saw at the start of 2023, and the largest one-year jump in basic pay since 2002.

For an enlisted military member ranked E-4 with three years in service, the 5.2% pay raise will mean about $1,700 more next year in take-home pay compared to their 2023 paychecks. For senior enlisted and junior officers, the hike equals about $3,000 more. For an O-4 with 12 years of service, it’s more than $5,400 in extra pay in 2024.

Lawmakers also included language mandating a review of military pay rates with an eye towards “comprehensive military pay table reauthorization” in the near future.

House members last summer had pushed for targeted pay raises for junior enlisted troops to bring all military members’ annual salaries over $31,000, but that proposal was abandoned in negotiations for the final authorization bill.

But House Armed Services Committee leaders have promised to revive the issue in 2024, and will use the Pentagon’s findings to craft future pay boost legislation.

The measure also sets military end strength for fiscal 2024 at 1,284,500 troops, the lowest level since 1940. Lawmakers blamed recruiting challenges in recent years for that low target.

It also boosts special pay and incentive pay for guardsmen and reservists, ensuring those payouts are equal to what active-duty troops receive when required training and certifications are identical.

Conservative concerns

House and Senate leaders also attached to the defense bill a provision to extend part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act into mid-April, instead of allowing it to expire at the end of the year. That drew outrage from a number of conservative lawmakers who accused their leadership of caving to Democratic demands.

Lawmakers also took issue with a series of social issue provisions removed from the House-passed draft of the defense bill over the summer, including language undoing the military’s abortion access policies and rules regarding transgender medical care.

“This bill is insufficient to deal with the structural challenges that we have at the Department of Defense, where they have veered substantially left,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., one of five members of the conference committee to refuse to back the final compromise.

But Republican leaders pushed back on those accusations. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said the final bill “goes a long way towards ending woke policies being forced on our service members” and “includes provisions that ban critical race theory and require promotions based on merit.”

Much of the language on those issues was softened from the original House draft, backed almost solely by Republican members when it passed out of the chamber. Plans to eliminate the post of chief diversity officer for the military and prohibit all future mask mandates for pandemic prevention efforts were dropped completely.

But the final bill does include provisions to ease re-enlistment rules for some troops forced out of the ranks for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and includes requirements for more communication between parents and administrators at schools run by the Defense Department.

Biden has not said when he will sign the bill into law. On Tuesday, the Office of Budget and Management praised the compromise bill, saying in a statement the agreement “provides the critical authorities we need to build the military required to deter future conflicts while supporting the servicemembers and their spouses and families who carry out that mission every day.”

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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