VETERAN-RELATED LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS
The House and Senate returned from their recess this week. The House passed the second continuing resolution (CR) on Tuesday October 4 by a vote of 352-66. This spending resolution will fund the federal government until November 18 at the FY 2011 funding levels. It was signed into law on October 5 as Public Law 112-36. It is hoped that passage of this stopgap measure will allow Congress to pass the 11 remaining appropriations measures to fund government operations for the balance of fiscal year (FY) 2012.
LEGISLATIVE FOCUS FOR THE WEEK: House Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Coast Guard Acquisition Program. On Tuesday, October 4 the House Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee on the Coast Guard & Maritime Transportation held a hearing. The subject was a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report which suggested that much taxpayer money has been invested in the Coast Guard's Deepwater acquisition program. The report stated that the Coast Guard had little to show, and further asserted that the approved 2007 baseline budget and timeline for the program was unattainable. Chairman LoBiondo opened the hearing by giving an overview of the problem to be discussed, that the subcommittee was concerned by the GAO report He stated that the committee was dedicated to the successful modernization of the Coast Guard in order to ensure that it is able to continue its critical missions efficiently. Ranking Member Larsen echoed the Chairman's remarks, recognizing gains and improvements that have been made.
The first witness called was Mr. John Hutton of GAO. Mr. Hutton's testimony effectively covered the findings of the report, stating that in tracking the Coast Guard's recapitalization efforts for the past ten years, GAO has built up a substantial body of work which points to the Coast Guard's need to improve acquisition, contract management and oversight capability. He reemphasized the position of his agency that while the Coast Guard's acquisition management capabilities have improved, there is still much work to be done in order to fully address cost growth, delays and capability shortfalls which have rendered the Deepwater program, as approved, unachievable.
The second witness called was Admiral Robert Papp, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. His testimony largely defended the Coast Guard's ability to manage acquisitions, and the necessity of making informed trade-offs in acquisition projects due to a change in the fiscal climate since the inception of the Deepwater acquisition program in 1996. He made clear that the Coast Guard has considered the GAO report in its plans to move forward in improving its acquisition programs. Admiral Papp stated that he and the rest of his organization are committed to continuing to improve the process in order to maximize efficiency and ensure operational readiness.
House Armed Services Panel Examines Future of National Defense
On Tuesday, October 4, The American Legion attended a House Armed Services Committee hearing on "The Future of National Defense and the U.S. Military Ten Years After 9/11: Perspectives from Outside Experts." This hearing is the third in a series of hearings to evaluate lessons learned since 9/11 and to apply those lessons to decisions the committee will be making about the future of our military force.
The committee is focusing on two principle concerns. The first is a security issue - meaning that in a networked and globalized world, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are no longer adequate to keep America safe and September 11th proves that. The second is an economic concern - meaning that while our military power is derived from our economic power, we must also recognize that cuts to our nation's defense, either by eliminating programs or laying off soldiers, comes with an economic cost.
Chairman ‘Buck' McKeon (CA) opened by saying, "Believing that we can maintain a solid defense that is driven by budget choices, not strategic ones is a dangerous path for our national security." He went on to say that he was not arguing the military can be held exempt from fiscal belt tightening. But he did say half a trillion dollars has been cut from DOD already. He was also concerned that if the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction does not succeed in developing and passing a deficit reduction plan, an additional half a trillion dollars could be cut from our military automatically.
Ranking Member Adam Smith said, "Our country faces a long-term, systemic budget dilemma - we don't collect enough revenue to cover our expenditures. Currently, we must borrow about 40 cents for every dollar the federal government spends. This problem must be addressed from both ends - spending will have to come down, and we're going to have to generate new revenues. I share the view that large, immediate cuts to the defense budget would have substantially negative impacts on the ability of the U.S. military to carry out their missions." He went on to say that if the supercommittee fails to reach a deal, then cuts through sequestration will only impose deeper and more dangerous cuts to our military and non-entitlement spending such as infrastructure, education and homeland security. I believe that we can rationally evaluate our national security strategy, our defense expenditures, and the current set of missions we ask the military to undertake and come up with a strategy that requires less funding.
The committee heard from: General John Jumper, former Chief of Staff of the Air Force; General Richard Cody, former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army; and General H. Steven Blum, former Chief of the National Guard. In their capacities, the witnesses were directly involved in the management, training, and equipping of our force.
General Jumper testified that the terrorist threats will continue to pose the greatest threat and that we must be prepared for more than counterinsurgencies. He said it will be difficult for the services to implement the current projected cuts and that if sequestration results there will be a loss of military capability and an adverse impact on service member morale. Budget cuts will hit training, research and development, and readiness first, and then force structure. The programs to repair and reset the force will also suffer with backlogs developing. All service components, Active, National Guard and Reserve, will be affected in the draw downs.
General Blum testified that the committee must remember the National Guard has both federal and state missions and both missions must be kept in mind in any budget reductions. He recommended the National Security Strategy be independent of budget constraints. Strategy must come first, then make decisions based on informed dialogue and determine how best to accomplish our strategy within existing fiscal constraints.
General Cody testified that the Army was out of balance due to repeated tours of 12 months in combat with only 13 months back in home station before deploying again. This schedule is stressing the All-Volunteer Army and their families. Due to the harsh environments the Army operates in the equipment is being consumed at a very high rate and needs to be repaired or replaced more often. He said the congressional use of continuing resolutions to fund the Army rather than a budget from an appropriation creates more uncertainty over year-to-year budgeting. Finally he said that budget cuts to the Army means that decisions will have to be made on what to cut: what missions; what threats need to be countered; what level of readiness is to be sustained. These decisions will be difficult to make as the world is dangerous, hostile and unpredictable.
When asked by the committee members of where they see cuts could be made only a few programs were put forth. They included: reducing the tactical nuclear stockpile; reducing forward bases; changing the logistics chain to reduce inventory and keeping it in the industrial base; increasing TRICARE fees on retirees and on drug co-pays; and, reducing promotion rates and keeping service personnel in grade longer.
Update on Flag Amendment Bills
Senator Orrin Hatch's (UT) office continues to solicit additional cosponsors for Senate Joint Resolution (S.J. Res.) 19, a proposed constitutional amendment to protect the American flag from physical desecration. Its text states simply: "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States." The cosponsor total for the Senate legislation stands at 28.
To date, H.J. Res. 13 - the House companion to the Senate measure - has accumulated 61 cosponsors, with the recent additions of Reps. Joe Wilson (SC) and Rick Crawford (AR). Please contact your representatives' and senators' offices, and ask them to become cosponsors of the flag amendment in their respective chambers. If they are already cosponsors, be sure to thank them for their support.
Update on American Legion Charter Amendment Legislation
H. R. 2369, the bill to amend the charter of The American Legion is posted on THOMAS, the Library of Congress tracking website for Congressional legislation. [You can search for the bill on the THOMAS website at: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/thomas.php.] The bill amends the charter to clarify statutorily the autonomous, independent nature of our posts and departments. It would also facilitate credit card processing of online membership renewals. The bill is in the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives awaiting action. The Legislative team was approached this week by the Committee Chairman's staff. While meeting with Speaker Boehner yesterday, Commander Wong pushed for quick passage of the amendment.
On the Senate side, Senators Tester (MT) and Heller (NV) introduced the companion bill, S. 1639, on October 3. After a number of visits on the hill corresponding with the National Commander's testimony, we received a tremendous number of phone calls from interested senators. We urged them to co-sponsor the Senate bill. After sending out a Legislative Action Center (LAC) alert on this legislation and getting four additional cosponsors, on the evening of Thursday, October 6 the Senate passed S. 1639 by unanimous consent. Considering that it was three days from the bill's introduction to its passage by the full Senate, this is an incredible success story. This now puts pressure on the House to pass this measure. Please contact your representatives and ask them sign on as additional cosponsors. In addition, ask if your House members will contact the office of the Speaker to expedite passage of this vital legislation. You can also go to this link, http://capwiz.com/legion/home/ to find out more.
Letters of Support
On September 26, The American Legion sent a letter to Rep. Paul Tonko (NY), supporting H.R. 2052, entitled the "Fort McClellan Health Registry Act." This measure would provide for the establishment of a health registry and the scheduling of appropriate examinations for those veterans who served at Fort McClellan, Alabama. A former home of the Army Chemical School, the Military Police School, and an Advanced Individual Training Infantry Brigade during the Vietnam War, Fort McClellan was the only U.S. Army installation in the U.S. with three major missions. Since its closure in 1999, efforts to clean up the installation have moved forward. This legislation would ensure those affected veterans would receive the care and treatment they deserve.
On September 28, The American Legion sent a letter to Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC), supporting S. 1025, entitled the "National Guard Empowerment and State-National Defense Integration Act of 2011." This measure would take a number of steps to strengthen this country's Reserve forces. In the last 10 years, the Reserve component has proved itself to be a full partner in our wars overseas. The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have both stated that today's military cannot function without mobilized reserve component assistance.
On September 28, The American Legion sent a letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy (VT), supporting amendments which the senator included in S. 1025.
On October 7, The American Legion sent a letter to Rep. Bruce Braley (IA), supporting H.R. 2826, entitled the "Combat Veterans Back to Work Act of 2011." This measure would allow employers a tax exemption, or reduction in employment taxes, for wages paid to a qualified service member or veteran and also allows an employer a business tax credit for these workers who have been employed for not less than 52 consecutive weeks at a specified wage level. This legislation, if enacted, will (1) help create jobs for returned reserve component service members and other veterans, (2) will cut payroll taxes for businesses that hire unemployed service members and veterans by exempting small businesses from paying the employer's share of the Social Security tax for up to one year through December 31, 2012 if they hire current members of the National Guard or Reserve, or any veteran who has returned home from deployment within the last 18 months and is currently unemployed, and (3) employers who keep these employees on the payroll for 52 consecutive weeks will receive an additional $1,000 tax credit.
On October 7, The American Legion sent a letter to Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX), supporting H.R. 2875, entitled the "Wounded Veteran Job Security Act." This measure would amend the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). It would provide for the reemployment of certain persons following absences from a position of employment for the purpose of obtaining medical treatment for certain injuries and illnesses. This legislation, if enacted, will prohibit discrimination and acts of reprisal against veterans who receive treatment for illnesses, injuries, and disabilities incurred in or aggravated by service in the uniformed services.
I’ve heard that some for-profit colleges are using aggressive and deceptive recruiting techniques to get veterans to enroll. What are the facts, and what is The American Legion doing about it?
The 90/10 rule is a rule enacted in 1992, and most recently amended in 2008 that requires for-profit colleges to obtain at least 10 percent of its funding from sources outside of government grants and loans, as part of the Higher Education Act of 1965. The rationale behind this policy is the idea that if a program is worthwhile, some students will be willing to pay for the programs through private funding. Recent Congressional hearings have highlighted problems with the rule as it pertains to veterans' education benefits. Money provided to schools through veteran and active duty educational benefits is not counted as federal money under current accounting rules. Therefore, schools have a large incentive to target veterans or service members for enrollment. For every active service member who is eligible for federal tuition assistance or veteran who is eligible for Post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits enrolled, schools are able to enroll 9 other students who are dependent on federal grants or loans and maintain compliance with the 90/10 rule.
This has created a situation in which for-profit schools have aggressively recruited veterans, despite the schools' credentials or the relevance of the schools' offerings to a veteran's particular goals. It has been suggested that many schools have taken to using less than honest recruiting practices in an effort to use veterans to their own ends. Many of these schools have low graduation rates and at times have not been shown to be conducive to finding gainful employment, even after graduation. Additionally, many of these schools lack accreditation, which hinders credit transfers to other institutions, and have higher tuition rates, and higher student loan default rates.
At first glance, it appears the simple solution is to include federal tuition assistance and G.I. Bill funds in the 90 percent side of the 90/10 rule. However, Curtis Coy, VA's Deputy Under Secretary of Economic Opportunity Administration, testified before Congress on Thursday, September 22, that if the policy were suddenly shifted, many schools could be put in jeopardy of losing their eligibility to receive federal aid by being out of compliance with the 90/10 rule, and veterans who are currently students could be negatively impacted. Russell Kitchner, Vice President for Regulatory and Governmental Relations of the American Public University System, also testified at the same hearing stating that "...no evidence has been presented to support the notion that the 90/10...rules measure anything other than the financial need of a given institution's student population." He also expressed concern that the 90/10 rule could create incentive for schools to raise tuition rates, forcing students to apply non-federal funds to their tuition, in order to remain in compliance.
Solutions are still being debated, and currently none seem completely satisfactory. The tension between ensuring that veterans are obtaining a legitimate, applicable education while reducing incentive to target veterans for programs through questionable recruiting tactics and ensuring fairness to schools which attempt to provide quality, low-cost education to veterans demands a resolution that takes all aspects of the problem into consideration.
The American Legion has been in attendance at hearings discussing this issue, and continues to monitor the situation as it unfolds. The Fall 2011 NEC meeting will consider resolution language that would provide a more formal position for The American Legion as lawmakers continue to work toward solutions.