Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks to reporters May 20 at the Pentagon. Among the topics covered in the news conference was Gates' tacit approval for Congress' proposed 1.9 percent military pay raise. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)
Defense Secretary Robert Gates waved the white flag Thursday over the House Armed Services Committee's decision to boost the Pentagon's basic pay raise request for fiscal 2011 by half a percentage point, saying he would not recommend a presidential veto if the proposal is included in the final defense spending bill.
"I want change," Gates told reporters at the Pentagon. "But I'm not crazy."
The bill that came out of committee this week included a 1.9 percent raise in base pay effective Jan. 1. Congress has added one-half point to every Pentagon basic pay raise request since 2000 in an effort to narrow a perceived pay gap between average military and civilian wages.
If the Pentagon's 1.4 percent proposal somehow survived, it would be the lowest raise in the history of the all-volunteer era that began in 1973.
In February, Gates urged Congress not to increase the Pentagon's latest request, testifying that his proposed raise equaled the most recent annual change in the Employment Cost Index, a Labor Department measure of private-sector wages.
He said that a bigger raise would take $500 million a year from money that would be better spent to train and equip the force, and that a further increase was unnecessary given the current strong recruiting and retention environment.
But Thursday, Gates essentially acknowledged that starting a fight over the slightly larger raise is not worth the political capital that would have to be spent in waging it.
He was far more concerned about the House committee adding funds to buy an alternative engine for the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, and unwanted transport aircraft.
"As I have stated repeatedly, should the Congress insist on adding funding for a costly and unnecessary JSF extra engine or direct changes that seriously disrupt the JSF program, or impose additional C-17 aircraft, I will strongly recommend that the president veto such legislation," Gates said.
The House committee's pay raise proposal is not a done deal; it now goes to the full House and then must be reconciled with the Senate version for the final bill.