Pay Raise for Junior Enlisted Faces White House Opposition, High Cost Estimates

President Joe Biden’s administration opposes a bipartisan provision in the House of Representatives to significantly boost pay for junior enlisted service members, arguing major changes should wait until the Pentagon completes its quadrennial review on compensation. 

At the same time, Congress’ own budget analysts estimate the proposed pay raise—a central part of the House Armed Services Committee’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act—would cost more than $24 billion over the next five years. 

The White House statement and the Congressional Budget Office analysis both came out June 11, just days before the full House is set to vote on the 2025 NDAA.  

It remains unclear, however, if either will be enough to derail the proposal, which would boost basic pay for troops ranked E-1 through E-4 by 15 percent, in addition to the 4.5 percent annual raise proposed in the President’s budget request. 

In its statement of administration policy, the White House noted more than 30 areas where it disagrees with the proposed NDAA but indicated broad overall support. And at a House Rules Committee hearing on the bill, lawmakers showed strong support for the pay raise, even with the estimated costs. 

“The junior enlisted need this lift,” said Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “And the committee, that vote may have been unanimous … from the 58 members of the committee who have looked at this issue and who studied the DOD budget inside and out, and that number is accounted for in our appropriation numbers.” 

“Many of our junior enlisted are struggling to afford housing; as housing costs have gone up, their pay has not kept pace,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. “This is a bold step to try and make sure that we support them, which incidentally will also help with recruitment and retention.” 

But while many House lawmakers support the pay raise, it will also need to make it through the Senate. The Senate Armed Services Committee is set to take up its version of the NDAA this week, and once both bills clear the full chambers, they must be reconciled in conference, meaning the pay increase may remain up in the air for months to come. 

The proposal originated from the HASC’s Quality of Life panel, led by Air Force veterans Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) and Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Penn.), who argued in their final report issued in April that the boost was needed to keep pace with increasing wages for civilian low-income jobs. 

The costs, however, could prove troublesome given the budget caps imposed by the Fiscal Responsibility Act through fiscal 2025 and a broader push to modernize equipment across the entire Pentagon.  

The White House claims the budget increase would cost roughly $3.3 billion in 2025 and more than $21.9 billion from 2025-2029. The CBO, a nonpartisan budget analysis group, estimates the cost at $24.4 billion from 2025-2029. 

The White House estimate would exceed the Air Force’s entire aircraft procurement budget for 2025. The CBO estimate would exceed the Air Force’s procurement budget for the new B-21 bomber from 2025-29. 

That’s to say nothing of programs like the new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile, which is $35 billion over budget. Air Force officials have said they are considering all options to meet the funding gap, though the program must still be certified by the Secretary of Defense to continue. 

Beyond cost, the White House made the argument in its statement that now is not the time for a major change to the military’s pay tables while the Pentagon is still conducting its Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation (QRMC). 

That review began in January 2023, with a final report scheduled for January 2025. In addition to pay, the review is looking at the ways the Pentagon calculates its benchmarks for pay, as well as allowances for housing, food, and more. 

House lawmakers took aim at some of those issues in the NDAA as well, including provisions that would expand eligibility for the Basic Needs Allowance and fully fund the Basic Allowance for Housing instead of the current “cost-sharing” arrangement that forces service members to pay for 5 percent. 

The CBO said it was too difficult to determine the costs of the proposed BAH change but estimated expanding eligibility for BNA would cost $260 million in 2025 and $1.4 billion over the 2025-2029 period. The White House has a much higher estimate of $14.8 billion for the basic needs allowance change and opposes the move.