We have no Action Items today.
Summary of Issues
At Issue 1. we see MOAA DEFENDS COMMISSARIES. Congress eyes commissary reform. (See Issue 1 below for the details. GF)
At Issue 2. we see ARE THE COMMISSARIES SAFE? Potential threats seem constant. MOAA’s Director of Government Relations, Col. Steve Strobridge, USAF (Ret), examines the viability of the commissary system in his January As I See It column. (See Issue 2 below for the details. GF)
At Issue 3. we see HELP VA MEET THE NEEDS OF FEMALE VETERANS Your input matters. We’re raising the awareness for a new survey from VFW and would appreciate your participation. (If you are a female veteran, click on HELP VA MEET THE NEEDS OF FEMALE VETERANS here or above to complete the survey. If that doesn’t work, try clicking on HELP VA MEET THE NEEDS OF FEMALE VETERANS below. GF)
Collectively We Can and Are Making a Difference
FOR ALL, Please feel free to pass these Weekly Legislative Updates on to your group of Veteran Friends –
don’t be concerned with possible duplications – if your friends are as concerned as we are with Veteran issues, they probably won’t mind getting this from two or more friendly sources
Issue 1. MOAA DEFENDS COMMISSARIES
January 15, 2016
On Wednesday, MOAA Deputy Director of Government Relations Brooke Goldberg testified before the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee regarding commissary reform.
The FY16 Defense Authorization Act specified any changes to the commissary system must maintain current levels of patron savings and satisfaction. Goldberg thanked subcommittee members for establishing these standards. She emphasized the commissary benefit is in the savings, and these are the right metrics to use in assessing any program changes.
Highlighting the compensation and retention value of the commissary, Goldberg told the subcommittee, “For an E-5 with 8 years of service and a family of four, grocery savings at the commissary are equivalent to a 9 percent pay raise.”
She went on to express concern about possible changes in the way savings are measured, noting that maintaining the same market basket measure is crucial to preserving the same savings patrons rely on.
Most of the legislators at the hearing appeared to agree with the witnesses. The value of the commissary benefit far outweighs the “hundredths of one percent of the military budget we can save [by cutting it],” said Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.).
While the necessity of commissaries overseas is not hard to see, last year the subsidy that helps pay the cost of transporting fresh produce to stores in Asia and the Pacific was cut. This resulted in a cost increase to patrons, so the price of a bag of romaine lettuce skyrocketed to more than $10 at the commissary in Guam. Goldberg said, “Those sent overseas at the pleasure of their government should not be stuck with the bill for shipping resources to their location.”
Multiple studies confirm the commissary is one of the military community’s most-valued benefits. It is a significant compensation, morale, and community factor for servicemembers and their families, enhancing military readiness no matter where they are asked to go.
Subcommittee leaders clearly agreed.
Chairman Joe Heck (R-Nev.) expressed his commitment to sustaining this important benefit. “If there’s not enough savings, people are going to walk,” he said.
Issue 2. ARE THE COMMISSARIES SAFE?
By: Col. Steve Strobridge, USAF (Ret)Director, Government RelationsAbout the Author
Strobridge, a native of Vermont, is a 1969 ROTC graduate from Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y. He was called to active duty in October 1969 and began his career as a Basic Military School training officer and commander and as a military personnel officer. He subsequently served as a compensation and legislation analyst at HQ U.S. Air Force and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as director, Officer and Enlisted Personnel Management, with intervening assignments in Thailand and Germany.
His final assignment was as chief of the Entitlements Division at HQ U.S. Air Force, with policy responsibility for military compensation, retirement and survivor benefits, and all legislative matters affecting the military community. He is a graduate of the Armed Forces Staff College and National War College.
Strobridge retired from the Air Force in January 1994 to become MOAA’s deputy director for Government Relations. In 2001, he was appointed as director of Government Relations and elected as cochair of The Military Coalition.
He retired from MOAA in April 2013 but was recalled as Government Relations director in September 2015.
The FY 2016 Defense Budget proposed privatizing the military commissary system over several years. The Pentagon’s main goal was to eliminate the $1.3 billion annual DoD subsidy for the commissary system.
The House version of the FY 2016 Defense Authorization Bill didn’t include the proposed budget cut or the privatization concept.
But the Senate version did — cutting the FY 2016 commissary budget by $322 million and requiring DoD to submit two reports to Congress. The first, due by Feb. 1, was to be on the viability of privatizing the system. If viable, and validated by the Government Accountability Office, a second report was to provide a plan to do so.
The threat to this high-value benefit caused understandable uproar among military beneficiaries.
Multiple studies have concluded privatization inevitably would lead to significantly higher prices; lower patronage not only at commissaries but also at exchanges and other base facilities that benefit from commissary traffic; eventual closure of the commissaries; and seriously adverse effects on exchange revenues, which are needed to fund base gyms, libraries, and other morale, welfare, and recreation activities.
MOAA, The Military Coalition, and others worked hard to articulate these concerns to House and Senate leaders and generate grassroots input from commissary patrons.
In the end, the House and Senate compromised, and the final FY 2016 Defense Authorization Act:
- reduced the FY 2016 commissary budget cut from $322 million to a far more manageable $30 million;
- instead of a plan to privatize the system, required a DoD plan to make delivery of commissary and exchange benefits “budget neutral” (i.e., no cost to DoD) by the end of FY 2018, also to be validated by the GAO;
- authorized DoD to conduct pilot programs to evaluate ways to achieve commissary/exchange budget neutrality; and
- most important, specified that such initiatives must (a) maintain high levels of customer satisfaction, (b) provide high-quality products, and (c) sustain the current level of savings for customers.
MOAA and The Military Coalition supported these provisions, in full knowledge that making the program budget-neutral while still achieving the same levels of patron savings and satisfaction and product quality is functionally impossible.
Subsequently, the new deputy chief management officer for DoD acknowledged this reality. He also acknowledged previous DoD proposals were aimed at simply cutting the budget, regardless of the risk to the commissary program.
Further, he pledged that the department now has accepted the first priority must be maintaining the current level of benefit.
Rather than seeking any specific savings target, he said future initiatives would be aimed at seeking possible business-practice efficiencies that still would sustain the same benefit level, and DoD would accept whatever level of budget savings might be realized within that mandate.
Refreshing words, to be sure. But it’s not as if we’ve never heard them before.
During the George W. Bush administration, there were multiple Pentagon proposals to cut commissary funding in various ways. After being rebuffed multiple times, those officials also pledged not to do so again.
The reality is there have been dozens of proposals to curtail, privatize, or eliminate the commissary benefit going back more than 40 years.
Are commissaries finally safe?
Yes — but only until the next administration’s political appointees tasked to cut the defense budget start asking, as have so many of their predecessors, why the Pentagon is in the grocery business.
The answer they’ll get, as all of their predecessors ultimately were forced to acknowledge, is the commissary provides a crucial non-pay benefit whose cumulative compensation and retention value is greater than its cost to DoD.
As Brooke Goldberg, a MOAA deputy director of Government Relations, testified at a Jan. 13 House Armed Services Committee hearing, grocery savings at the commissary provide the equivalent of a 9-percent pay raise for an E-5 family of four with eight years of service. That’s a pretty big benefit bang for your commissary buck.
The commissary benefit, aside from some selected closures and changes in hours, is pretty much the same as it was 40 years ago, despite dozens of interim attacks.
It’s certain more attacks will come in the future.
But the odds are the compelling arguments in favor of the commissary benefit will continue to prevail over the arguments against it — as long as we stay vigilant and vocal.
That’s it for today- Thanks for your help!