LEGION-RELATED LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS
The U.S. Senate was in session this preceding week. The House is scheduled to return from recess next week (May 28-June 1), while the Senate has scheduled its home work period for that week. The House is scheduled to be in recess during the week of June 11-15.
Senate Committee Plan Eliminates TRICARE Increases
Preliminary reports from the Senate Armed Services Committee indicate the Pentagon plan proposed by President Obama to raise Tricare health care fees as a way to dramatically reduce personnel costs appears to have been set aside.
Unlike the House consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act, the Senate bill is considered behind closed doors. The Senate Armed Services Committee spent nearly the entire week drafting their version, and when completing their work last night, preliminary reports indicate The American Legion’s efforts to prevent dramatic TRICARE premium increases, a tiered annual fee structure, and other changes were successful. While work on the 2013 defense budget is far from over, the Senate committee’s decision comes one week after the House of Representatives passed its own version of the 2013 defense authorization bill that also omits the Defense Department’s proposal to raise enrollment fees and deductibles for working-age retirees, including income-based enrollment fees for the Tricare Prime and the Tricare For Life programs.
With the Defense Department plan omitted from both the House and Senate versions of the defense policy bill, it would take some extraordinary reversal by lawmakers to approve the Pentagon plan as part of the final compromise legislation that will be completed later this year. The American Legion will remain engaged on this matter as the full Senate considers the bill and necessary compromises are addressed in differences between the Senate and House versions.
House Passes FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act
On May 18 the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2013, H.R. 4310, passed the full House by a vote of 299-120. This followed the approval of the bill on May 10 by the House Armed Services Committee by a vote of 56-5. The legislation provides the pay, funding and authorities for America’s men and women in uniform, and is the key mechanism by which Congress fulfills its primary constitutional responsibility to “provide for the common defense.” In the legislation, Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon and members of the committee show their commitment to: restore fiscal sanity to a defense budget that is inconsistent with the threats America faces; keep faith with America’s men and women in uniform; align our military posture in a dangerous world; and rebuild a force after a decade at war.
H.R. 4310 begins to restore the defense budget, reflecting concern about America’s mounting debt, but also ensuring that our armed forces have the resources they need to meet an increasingly dangerous world. It also recognizes that the military has absorbed 50% of deficit reduction efforts to date, though it comprises only 20% of the federal budget.
The bill authorizes funding for national defense at $554.2 billion for the base budget, and an additional $88.5 billion for overseas contingency operations. This level of funding is consistent with the House-passed budget resolution. It is $3.7 billion above the President’s budget request, and is an incremental step to address the $46 billion decrease when considering where the President proposed national defense would be for fiscal year 2013 in last year’s budget.
Both the President’s budget request and the House-passed budget authorized national defense above the Budget Control Act (BCA); however, in crafting the House budget, the House was careful to identify other non-defense sources to accommodate the needed increase in national security accounts while reducing overall funding below the BCA cap.
The legislation provides our war fighters and their families with the care and support they need, deserve, and have earned; while ensuring that proposed drawdown plans do not cut to the heart of the Army and Marine Corps. Vital provisions include:
• Troop Pay - The FY13 NDAA authorizes a 1.7% pay increase and extends bonuses and special pay for our men and women in uniform.
• TRICARE - The FY13 NDAA restates the firmly-held sense of Congress that prior service to our nation is a pre-payment of healthcare benefits in retirement. As such, it rejects the President’s proposal to increase some TRICARE fees and establish new TRICARE fees. The President’ budget proposed more than doubling pharmacy co-pays, an annual enrollment fee for the TRICARE for Life benefit for Medicare-eligible retirees, income-based enrollment fees for TRICARE Prime, and an annual enrollment fee for TRICARE Standard and Extra and raising TRICARE Standard and Extra deductibles. In contrast, the FY13 NDAA includes a modest increase in TRICARE pharmacy co-pays in 2013 and a cap on pharmacy co-pays beginning in 2014 that would allow fees to rise by no more than the annual retiree COLA. This is offset by a 5-year pilot program that requires TRICARE for life recipients to obtain refills of maintenance drugs through the TRICARE mail-order program.
• Limiting Troop Reductions. As the size of the military is reduced, the FY13 NDAA caps the number of troops that can be separated from the force in a single year. The bill also mandates that in the future, funding for troops designated for separation must be part of Department of Defense’s (DOD) base budget and not carried in accounts for contingency operations.
• Combating Sexual Assault. The FY13 NDAA reflects a bipartisan effort to provide significant new regulations and procedures for combating and prosecuting sexual assault within the military.
• Military Chaplains. The measure includes a religious freedom conscience clause for military chaplains and service members.
This year, through the incorporation of the Right to Habeas Corpus Act, the bill makes clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that every American will have his day in court. The FY13 NDAA also prohibits the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay to the United States and prohibits use of funds to house Guantanamo terrorist detainees in the United States.
H.R. 4310 requires the President to notify Congress of any planned force reductions in Afghanistan prior to any public announcement of such a decision. Notification would include assessment of conditions on the ground that enable such a force reduction, including the relevant security risks associated with the reduction in force levels, and an assessment of the operational capability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
The bill also includes a Sense of Congress that this country should: maintain security gains as the U.S. transitions security to the Afghans; transition to advise and assist at the earliest as conditions on the ground allow; and not maintain an indefinite combat mission. The President should: consider our Commander on the ground’s assessment for a combat presence through 2013; maintain a force of at least 68,000 through 2014 unless fewer forces achieve objectives (68,000 is the post surge withdrawal level expected this September 2012); and maintain troop presence and funding sufficient to advise and assist the ANSF after 2014.
• Special Operations. Enables Special Operations Forces to sustain the current fight and rebalance across the globe where appropriate to counter and mitigate threats, and work with partner nations. Preserves and institutionalizes other capabilities such as irregular warfare and security force assistance within the services and U.S. Special Operations Command.
• North Korea, China, Iran. Requires Combatant Commanders to give their assessment of capability gaps against North Korea, China, and Iran.
• Iran. Reinforces the United States’ commitment to use all elements of national power to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and enhances the credibility of the military option, should it prove necessary.
• Support for Israel. Supports key allies, including Israeli Cooperative Missile Defense programs like Iron Dome.
• Pakistan. Freezes security assistance funding to Pakistan until Pakistan reopens vital supply routes to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
• Nuclear Modernization, Oversight and NNSA Reform. Modernizes and supports DOD’s nuclear forces, including intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombers and the Navy’s strategic submarines and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Strengthens congressional oversight of the nation’s nuclear weapons war plan. Reforms the National Nuclear Security Administration’s governance and management systems to make the agency more independent and efficient.
• Homeland Missile Defense. Supports a robust national missile defense, including $100 million for an East Coast third site for national missile defense to align with the rising threat from Iran.
• Space. Provides additional funding for national security space programs, approximately $50 million above the Administration’s request.
• Cyber. Increases oversight on development of cyber operations capabilities.
• Science and Technology. Supports several key areas of science and technology investments to ensure the Department meets future defense needs.
The bill restores and retains vital systems, platforms, and authorities needed to maintain America’s combat power after a decade of war while declining to take up Administration requests, such as two rounds of base closure, which could damage vital military infrastructure. In addition, the NDAA:
In contrast to the President’s budget proposal, H.R. 4310 preserves tactical airlift crucial to DOD’s ability to support troops on the ground with agile combat support, such as C-130 Hercules, C-23 Sherpas, and C-27J Spartan aircraft proposed for early retirement. Maintains close air support and ground interdiction capabilities provided by A-10 Warthogs and F-16 Fighting Falcons slated for premature divestment prior to the forecasted service-life end of each aircraft. The Committee believes these assets remain vital to governors who have important roles as first responders in times of crisis.
• Navy Cruisers. Restores three of the four Navy cruisers proposed for early retirement in Fiscal Year 2013, each of the cruisers has more than a decade of useful service left, and can help make up the lack of combat power behind the President’s “pivot” to Asia.
• Counter-IED. Supports counter-IED funding to protect the troops on the ground.
• Heavy Armor. Sustains America's heavy armored production base by maintaining minimum sustained production of Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and Hercules recovery vehicles.
• Airborne Electronic Warfare. Maintains the option for additional airborne electronic warfare capabilities by supporting advance procurement for the EA-18G.
• Army Ground Combat. Fully funds the Army Ground Combat Vehicle development program.
• Aircraft. Fully funds requests for 50 AH-64 Apaches, 59 UH-60 Blackhawks, and 44 CH-47 Chinooks, 29 F-35 Lightning II aircraft, 26 F-18 E/F Super Hornets, V-22 aircraft, 36 MQ-9 Reaper UAS.
• Submarines and Destroyers. Authorizes a multi-year procurement for up to 10 Virginia-class submarines and up to 10 DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class destroyers.
The Senate Armed Services Committee was meeting behind closed doors this week to develop that chamber’s version of the NDAA. Final action was expected by week’s end. It is expected that the Senate NDAA will more closely resemble the President’s budget vision; expect a lively summer in this area. The President has already threatened to veto the House version if it ever reaches his desk.
LEGISLATIVE DIVISION ACTIONS
National Journal Policy Summit: Obesity and National Security
On Wednesday, May 23, the National Journal held a policy summit to examine the impact of the growing rate of obesity among Americans on national security, specifically in terms of recruiting and retention.
The event began with words by retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral James Barnett, Jr. representing Mission: Readiness, an organization which is concerned with ensuring that children are able to become adults who are capable of serving in the military to ensure the defense of the United States. Mr. Barnett addressed the issue of the growing rate of children who are obese in America, and the impact it is having, and will continue to have, on military readiness in the future. According to Mt. Barnett, 75 percent of Americans age 17-24 are ineligible for military service. Of this 75 percent, one quarter are ineligible due to physical fitness, including weight. Mr. Barnett pointed out that if current trends continue, upwards of 43 percent of the American population could be obese; this creates obvious difficulties for military readiness, and by extension, national security. The answer to the problem, he suggested, is the cultivation of a culture which values health and fitness, and which instills these habits into our children.
The panel consisted of four members: Christine Ferguson, Director, STOP Obesity Alliance; Tracy Fox, President, Food, Nutrition & Policy Consultants; COL Heidi Warrenton, Chief Nurse Executive, U.S. Army Public Health Command; and Marian Tanofsky-Kraff, Associate Professor, Uniformed Services University. The panel fielded questions from Maggie Fox who is the Managing Editor of Healthcare and Technology for the National Journal, as well as the audience, and discussed strategies for dealing with the issue as the country moves forward. Much of the discussion revolved around efforts aimed at stemming the tide of obesity, including, like Mr. Barnett, discussion of the cultivation of a culture in which healthy lifestyles are promoted in children from a young age, and the problem of providing healthy school lunches for children.
Additionally, the problem of maintaining military readiness was addressed. A Mission: Readiness study entitled Too Fat to Fight states that about 1,200 first-term enlistees are discharged annually without fulfilling their contractual obligations, which costs the military upwards of $1.1 billion annually. The Pentagon has recently formulated new nutritional standards for military meals for the first time in 20 years, which are designed to give troops and their families more access to fresh fruits, vegetables, more whole grains, lean meats and low-fat dairy products, and will be available in military dining halls, base schools, vending machines and snack bars.
Senate VA Committee Examines Disability Evaluation System
On May 23, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing evaluating the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES). The IDES was a product of the intense scrutiny and reform efforts that occurred after dramatic failures were found at Walter Reed hospital in 2007. Through the IDES, separating service members who have been identified possibly unfit due to injury or illness, are evaluated jointly by the Departments of Veteran Affairs (VA) and Defense. The system was developed to combine two disjointed processes into one systematic review that not only provided a determination of a fitness for duty, but also a VA disability rating should a service member’s injuries require discharge. Presently, over 27,000 servicemembers are involved in IDES.
Nearly one year ago, the committee held a similar hearing to determine the efficiency and effectiveness of the program. Daniel Bertoni, of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated, “Timeliness has steadily worsened since the inception of this program.” During the hearing, it was revealed active duty troops waiting 394 days on average during this process while National Guard and Reservists wait 420 days. This is worse than the numbers presented a year ago of 357 and 370 days respectively, and a dramatic deterioration from 2008 where they were less than 300 days.
While the goal remains to complete the process within 295 days, only 19 percent of active duty service members completed the process within that goal. Both the VA and DOD pledged to improve this to 60 percent in the coming year. Of particular note that has been corroborated by The American Legion staff at IDES locations has been the delay in processing of VA benefits. In 2010, it took an average of 48 days for a newly discharged veteran to receive his/her benefits after discharge. In 2011, this only slightly improved to 38 days, still well beyond the goal of 30 days.
While every member of the committee expressed frustration on the overall report and failure to meet goals and improvements, most including the DOD and VA witnesses could not point to specific methods that will improve the process. Utter frustration and hollow promises remained the common sentiment of everyone. As Chairman Patty Murray (WA) stated, “As more and more men and women return from Afghanistan and as the military downsizes, we’re going to continue to see an even larger group of service members transition through the disability evaluation process.”
Rep. Cumming Announces Legislation to Expand Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act
On Thursday, May 24 American Legion staff members Shaun Rieley (Assistant Director of Legislative) and Mark Walker (Deputy Director of Economics) attended a press conference at Baltimore’s historic 5th Regiment Armory. The event was hosted by Rep. Elijah Cummings (MD) to announce his proposed amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act – H.R. 4310 – which expands the protections afforded to service members under the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act (SCRA).
The legislation would: extend SCRA protections to surviving spouses of service members killed in the line of duty; extend post-service mortgage protections from 9 to 12 months; require all financial institutions to designate an SCRA compliance officer; require financial institutions with more than $10 billion in assets to maintain a toll-free number; and extend some SCRA protections to all 100% disabled veterans leaving the military.
Rep. Cummings stated “Service members shouldn’t have to fight for housing when they come back from fighting for the country.” This legislation would make strides toward ensuring that veterans do not have to worry about housing issues back home while they are focused on completing their mission overseas.
Maryland Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary Edward Chow, Jr., and St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, Inc., Executive Director Gerard Joab also spoke and offered praise for the legislation.
Update on Flag Amendment Bills
Sen. 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 35, with the recent additions of Sens. Debbie Stabenow (MI) and Tim Johnson (SD). To date, H.J. Res. 13 – the House companion to the Senate measure – has accumulated 86 cosponsors, with the addition last week of Reps. Tim Griffin (AR) and Daniel Lipinski (IL).
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.