As Congress deliberates on a spending bill, millions of Americans on the federal payroll are again left in financial precarity, including members of the U.S. armed forces and their families. If Congress fails to send a budget to the president by February 2, 2024, 1.3 million active-duty members will go without pay, even as they continue to protect Americans. Already, the political maneuverings of extremists in the U.S. House Republican Conference have left service members in limbo for months—causing real repercussions to morale and readiness.
How potential shutdowns harm military personnel
Whether the government shuts down or not, service members are required to report for duty, and for the third time since September, they must prepare to do so without pay. Many service members and their families live paycheck to paycheck and do not have the means to absorb a sudden salary cutoff. For example, in 2020, more than one-quarter of service members reported facing financial difficulty in normal times—difficulty felt disproportionately by young, enlisted ranks. In 2022, more than one-quarter of enlisted active-duty families reported experiencing some level of food insecurity, with service members of color twice as likely to report being food insecure. The short-term continuing resolutions passed in September and November may have provided temporary relief to these families, but they have only perpetuated uncertainty in whether pay will continue. Ultimately, these service members are left to grapple with the personal, real-world consequences of Congress’ abdication of responsibility.
Preparing for life without pay
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has provided information to its employees and service members on how to manage rent payments, home mortgages, and utility payments should paychecks stop. Moreover, USAA—a cooperative insurance and financial services company that serves military members and their families—and Navy Federal Credit Union have offered interest-free loans and paycheck assistance in the event of a shutdown. But these are patches that alone cannot resolve this looming crisis.
How potential shutdowns harm military readiness
A potential shutdown is just the latest example of how some Republicans’ extremist politics pose a threat to troop morale. Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-AL) recent 10-month blockade of more than 400 military promotions left senior officers and their families in uncertainty, a protracted delay that both strained morale and undermined military readiness. Moreover, House Republicans’ version of the defense spending bill reduced the salaries of the U.S. secretary of defense, the head of DOD’s equity and inclusion office, the military’s chief diversity officer, and the assistant secretary of defense for readiness—who is a trans woman—all to $1. Actions such as these, led by right-wing extremist members of Congress, are wholly at odds with their simultaneous rhetoric of supporting the military.
Operating for five months under continuing resolutions has already had tangible impacts on military readiness, affecting the military’s ability to plan and utilize funds. Without full-year appropriations, the DOD is unable to start new programs or initiate contracts—affecting both short- and long-term planning. William LaPlante, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, stated that even if Congress passes a budget by the end of January, it will still mean limiting training programs.
The convergence of unnecessary congressional actions—or lack thereof—compounds the military’s troubling struggles with recruitment and retention. The Army, Navy, and Air Force fell short of recruitment goals by a combined 41,000 recruits in fiscal year 2023, in what the Government Accountability Office has termed “the most challenging recruiting environment in 50 years.” Continued threats of a shutdown do little to build confidence in the military as a promising and stable career path at a time when trust in the institution is essential to recruitment efforts.
Where are affected service members located?
The U.S. military boasts more than 1.3 million active-duty service members and more than 750,000 reservists, all of whom would report for duty without pay until a spending bill is passed. More than 700,000 civilian DOD employees could also face furlough or—if they are deemed essential workers—show up to work without pay until funding is restored. The effects would reach across the country, affecting 1.1 million active-duty service members in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, according to the DOD’s Defense Manpower Data Center from September 2023. California, Virginia, Texas, North Carolina, and Florida, which are home to the most active-duty personnel in the country, would be hardest hit. Around 170,000 troops serving overseas would also face pay interruptions in the event of a shutdown.
The impacts in Florida are particularly concerning, as it is home to several key installations and major combat commands of strategic importance to U.S. national security, including the headquarters of the U.S. Southern Command, U.S. Central Command, Special Operations Command, and the Naval Air Station—the Navy’s third-largest base in the country.
Military members and their families deserve a Congress that does its job. The DOD’s millions of civilian and military personnel should be focused on defending the country against serious threats to its national security—not on grappling with difficult personal financial decisions created by threats from within Congress. It is critical that lawmakers move swiftly to pass legislation that will adequately fund defense spending needs as part of a wider imperative to fund the government in 2024.