Army Times: Commentary: Delay privatizing commissaries

By:  Sen. Jim Inhofe
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Privatizing military commissaries before conducting an assessment of the costs and benefits of such significant reform is irresponsible.
 
The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2016 that is being considered by the Senate would put into motion a pilot program to privatize five commissaries on major installations over the next two years. This is not a litmus test. Once you begin to privatize the most popular military benefit, it would be nearly impossible to reverse course should it cause more harm than good.
 
The Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission as well as the Defense Department recommended other cost-saving reforms for the commissaries. If we should pilot anything, it should be those. Yet this year's Senate NDAA ignores the commission's request to "protect access and savings to DoD commissaries and exchanges.”
 
If Congress wants DoD to look at privatizing commissaries, Congress should direct DoD to specifically research that effort so that we can make an informed decision. This is why I and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., have introduced a bipartisan amendment that would put the brakes on privatizing commissaries and first require an assessment of how this would impact our military and veterans as well as their families.
 
I want to know the cost and savings as well as the risks and benefits associated with privatization before any action is taken. This type of reform, affecting tens of thousands of troops, veterans and their families, deserves public debate. Having served on the Senate Armed Services Committee for 21 years, I believe it is the duty of Congress to honor the earned benefits we have promised to help support the world's greatest all-volunteer force.
 
A survey last year shows that 95 percent of service members are using commissaries to achieve needed savings in their family budgets, with a satisfaction rate of 91 percent. According to the Military Officers Association of America, the average family of four that shops exclusively at the commissary sees a savings of up to 30 percent — roughly $4,000 a year in savings for a military family.
 
Commissaries also provide jobs for the families of service members and veterans. According to the Armed Forces Marketing Council, more than 60 percent of Defense Commissary Agency employees have links to the military. Their jobs are transferable, giving much-needed employment and income certainty when families are regularly relocated all over the world due to permanent change-of-station orders.
 
More than 40 organizations support our amendment to protect commissaries. I have also received numerous phone calls, letters and emails from service members who are concerned about losing this benefit, such as the one from Beth of Oklahoma City who said, "My husband is currently active-duty Air Force. If I were to shop at our local store, I would pay nearly twice as much."
 
And David of North Carolina, who wrote, "Most young military families struggle from month to month and having this valuable resource is a needed thing."
 
Currently, 22 senators support my amendment, but it needs a majority in the Senate to pass. If you support the commissaries, or if you support taking a measured and thoughtful approach before privatizing this benefit, I hope you will take a brief moment to call your U.S. senator and urge support of the Inhofe-Mikulski Amendment No. 1728 to the NDAA.
 
Together we can halt this policy that has the potential to force thousands of service members and their families to be part of an experiment that will have no congressional review before implementation.
 
Inhofe is a Republican from Oklahoma who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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