Skip to Content

In the News

Pennsylvania state icon

‘A game-changer’: House panel outlines quality-of-life improvements for troops for 2025 defense bill

Originally posted by Stars and Stripes.

WASHINGTON — A 15% pay raise for junior enlisted service members. No more referrals for physical therapy, optometry, women’s health and other specialties. A basic allowance for housing that covers 100% of estimated costs.

Those are some of the recommendations of a panel of House lawmakers tasked with improving the quality of life for troops and their families as young service members in particular grapple with soaring living costs, substandard housing, limited access to child care, long wait times for medical care and spousal unemployment.

Such problems have plagued the military for years but lawmakers said they will push them to the forefront in the coming months as Congress crafts the 2025 National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill that sets priorities for the Pentagon.

“We can no longer ignore the clear warning signs that more must be done to protect and preserve the all-volunteer force,” said Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., the chairman of the panel. “It’s vital that we fix these quality-of-life issues.”

The group’s suggestions on how to do that stretch across 40 pages of a report unveiled Thursday. A proposal to increase basic pay by 15% for those between the ranks of E-1 and E-4 tops the list of recommendations.

The raise will help the military remain competitive with the civilian labor market and better match junior enlisted service member pay with civilian earnings for those with high school diplomas and some college, according to the report.

Lawmakers are also seeking improvements to other forms of compensation.

They want to see the Pentagon return coverage of the basic allowance for housing from 95% of calculated housing costs back to 100%, as it was from 2005 to 2016. The report also recommends expanding the authority to grant the allowance to junior sailors without dependents who are assigned to sea duty.

An adjustment is recommended for the basic allowance for subsistence, a monthly, flat amount that supplements food costs for troops. The panel said the Defense Department should factor in location and number of dependents when calculating the allowance.

About 25% of service members lack reliable access to affordable and nutritious food, according to 2023 report by the Rand Corp. Military spouses told lawmakers in September that they were embarrassed to use federal food-purchasing assistance programs at the commissary and described relying on local food banks.

Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., a member of the quality-of-life panel, said 45,000 members of the military community in San Diego — home to 110,000 active-duty troops — visit a food bank every month.

“We here in Congress, we as a country, we have failed them,” she said.

San Diego also experiences particularly acute child care shortages, with waitlists as long as 4,000 spots. The panel’s report notes the satisfaction rate of military child care is high but accessibility remains a significant challenge and a source of frustration for families.

The report recommends combating worker shortages by offering staff at the military’s child development centers free child care for their first child and authorizing the services to cover up to 100% of child care fees for additional children.

“This gets, of course, more staff on the books in our child care centers,” said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, the panel’s top Democrat. “It opens available slots so classrooms and day care centers are not empty because they don’t have staff and it therefore reduces wait time.”

Lawmakers are also proposing higher pay rates for employees that are competitive with market rates in the surrounding area. Another recommendation calls for the Defense Department to fully fund child care fee assistance programs.

The department and the service branches are also being asked to be more forthcoming about housing infrastructure needs. During months of research, the panel discovered the services regularly request less funds than needed for aging facilities, Houlahan said.

“It makes it really hard for us to see the full picture when people are sort of conditioned to ask for less than what they need,” she said.

As a result, the panel is recommending budget requests meet 100% of maintenance and modernization requirements so “we have a better idea, better data on what our shortfalls are and what our progress has been,” Houlahan said.

The condition of unaccompanied housing is the group’s main focus. This includes barracks, dormitories and short-term lodging, which are the default living spaces for single service members of junior ranks. A damning government watchdog report last year found seriously degraded facilities, with mold, sewage overflows, pest infestations, broken windows and door locks, and other deficiencies.

Members of the panel said there has been significant interest in privatizing unaccompanied housing facilities, almost all of which are government-owned, operated and maintained. Of the nearly 9,000 barracks and dorms, only seven are now privatized, according to the report.

The panel is recommending a thorough examination of whether privatized unaccompanied housing would fare better than traditional military-owned barracks. Separately, it wants to require each military service to study the feasibility of providing free wireless internet access in all unaccompanied housing.

Other recommendations concern access to health care and support for military spouses. Wait times for mental health providers and other specialists can stretch to weeks and the unemployment rate for military spouse remains stubbornly high at 22%.

The report proposes eliminating the need for referrals for appointments with specialists in physical therapy, nutrition, audiology, optometry, podiatry and women’s health.

“These are unnecessary obstacles that are bad,” Houlahan said. “They’re bad for the care and the overall health of our force and frankly, the readiness of our force as well.”

To aid military spouses, the panel recommends a permanent authorization of the Military Spouse Career Accelerator Pilot. The program, now authorized for three years, places military spouses in paid 12-week fellowships across various industries.

More than 400 fellows completed the program last year and 85% were offered a permanent job with an average salary above $65,000, according to the report.

Lawmakers also want to give military spouses actively seeking employment expanded access to child care, doubling the length of time they can receive priority for programs from 90 days to 180 days.

Houlahan said the full spectrum of recommendations represented an “absolute breakthrough” for efforts to solve some of the military’s most chronic issues and a “game-changer for our men and women in uniform.”

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has vowed to push the report’s proposals into law, calling them the “foundation” upon which the NDAA will be built.

“We intend to get this [bill] across the finish line with these recommendations in it,” he said. “We are going to do what’s in the report.”