Wednesday, April 27, 2011

One Place to Cut from the Pentagon Budget

The housing allowance for military members serving in Europe wastes a tremendous amount of US taxpayer money. For those of us who live in private housing, we rent large apartments and houses that we don't need, enriching European landlords at taxpayer expense.

In Europe, Soldiers pay for housing with what we call OHA (Overseas Housing Allowance). OHA allows a Soldier a set amount of money for rent. As a married captain who lives in the middle of nowhere Bavaria, my OHA is 1250 euros a month, way more than I need to live comfortably. (In larger cities like Wiesbaden, OHA for a married captain is at least a few thousand euros a month.) I could easily get a comfortable apartment for less than my OHA, but I don't. And no one I know lives in private housing on less than their OHA.

The main problem is that OHA is set too high. It's more money than I need for a nice apartment. But another issue is that I don't have any incentive to use less than the total amount of OHA. I don't keep the difference between the 1250 euros and what my actual rent is. Perhaps if I were a better man, than I wouldn't need an incentive to save the taxpayers a few hundred euros a month. But even if I were to unilaterraly declare war on government waste, it wouldn't solve the problem. If you looked at the apartments of me and my friends, as well as every other apartment or house of a Soldier or civilian (Perversely, the civilians get even more money than we do, and some of them have mini mansions.) I've seen in Germany, we are living well beyond what is necessary to be comfortable. And it's not just the Army. I just visited my wife's cousin in London. She is a lovely lady who lives in a cozy apartment. We talked of OHA and she told us of her airforce friend who has an outstanding flat, where the kitchen is larger than her entire apartment. I can guarantee that if the money that airmen was spending was his own, he would have a cheaper flat instead of a Rachel and Monica sized apartment in one of the most expensive cities on earth.

So not only should we reduce the total amount of OHA, we should change the incentives for servicemembers. The military should allow servicemembers to pocket the different between their OHA and the actual rent. In the US, the Soldier gets a specific amount of money based on zip code and rank, and then it's up to the Soldier to find housing. (The term is called BAH, or Basic Allowance for Housing.) The Soldier pockets the difference between the ceiling and the actual rent. At least with this system, the incentives keep the money with the Soldier. (It has also been my experience that BAH is set too high, but this does not anger me as much. BAH is a backdoor way to pay Soldiers more money and Soldiers are underpaid as it is. The problem with OHA is that it enriches European landlords.)

I guess the underlying cause to all of this is the number of US Soldiers living off-post in Europe (the deeper underlying causes, like why the US military is still in Europe in such numbers or why the US military is so large at all is not the concern of this post). If we can somehow enlarge bases (or not close bases like Wuerzburg that just got built up only to be closed after construction was finished) then at least we wouldn't be putting money directly into the pockets of European landlords. So if we are going to continue our large precense abroad, we should expand bases where possible and build more government housing. Another problem is that when a Soldier deploys from Europe, their apartment stays empty, injecting millions of American tax dollars directly into the pokcets of landlords who don't have to do anything. They don't have to fix a leaking pipe or broken heater, just collect rent for 12 or 15 months while sitting on their arses. (In the US, Soldiers have the option of breaking their lease when they deploy under the Servicemember's Civil Relief Act, "SCRA", something that was not negotiated in the Status of Forces Agreement with Germany.)

I know posting this may make me an enemy of those of us who benefit from this system. It is a good system for Soldiers. I like it. I'm living it up out here. And for the Soldiers who have gone through multiplie deployments, if they have a nice apartment in Germany that they can use as a base to travel Europe, God bless them. But in a time when we are talking about ways to save money for the US Government, this is an area where there's a lot of fat to trim with very little cost to the Soldier. If OHA was reduced and I moved from an apartment with 4 rooms to 2, I wouldn't suffer. Of course, I would prefer it if we could combine an OHA reduction with a redesign of the system. That way Soldiers could pocket the difference on their actual rent and OHA, a win/win. Soldiers could get some extra money and the US taxpayer could reduce their payments to European landlords.