Members of the U.S. military and their families often face stress due to personal debt and efforts to save money. A bill introduced by Pennsylvania Democratic U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright is intended to tackle those issues.
On Jan. 9, Cartwright introduced in the House of Representatives the Improving SCRA Benefit Utilization Act, a bill to enforce a cap on interest rates charged on any debts owed by military personnel incurred before their service began and to educate military families about financial protections available to them. The cap applies for the duration of their military service.
It builds on an existing — but underutilized — interest rate reduction program called the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which allows service members and their families to reduce interest rates to a maximum of 6% annually and protects them against default civil case judgments, foreclosure, and property repossession.
More than 75% of military and veteran families participating in a 2021 survey of military families by the nonprofit Military Family Advisory Network said they carried debt, and over 80% said it has caused them stress in the previous year.
A 2022 report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that among National Guard Reserve members, fewer than 10% with eligible auto and personal loans took advantage of the interest rate reduction option between 2007 and 2018. It estimated that about $100 million in potential savings for those employees was not accessed. Among other suggestions, its authors proposed automatically allowing “interest rate reductions for all accounts held at an institution if a servicemember invokes protections for a single account.”
Cartwright’s bill would do that and would require the military to do more to make eligible service members aware of the law.
“It is unacceptable that members of our nation’s military personnel aren’t able to utilize SCRA interest rate reductions – a benefit they earned – due to lack of awareness and barriers to usage,” Cartwright said in a press release. “Financial issues should not distract our brave men and women in uniform from their mission. My bipartisan legislation identifies commonsense opportunities to improve benefit awareness and utility, increase the likelihood of substantial financial savings, and enhance the overall readiness of our armed forces.”
It is unclear whether the bill will advance in the House of Representatives. Republicans have struggled to advance legislation since regaining the majority in the 2022 midterm elections, passing just 34 bills and resolutions that became law in all of 2023.
Cartwright’s bill has attracted bipartisan support. So far, it has 14 co-sponsors, including Pennsylvania Democratic Reps. Chris Deluzio and Chrissy Houlahan and Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.
Cartwright represents Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District, which includes the Scranton and Wilkes-Barre area in the northeastern part of the commonwealth.
He has previously authored laws to help military spouses transfer professional certifications and licenses when their families are restationed; to allow Marines impacted by toxic exposure at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to bring federal lawsuits over the injuries; and to make it easier for Vietnam War veterans who may have been exposed to Agent Orange to access care and disability benefits.