LEGION-RELATED LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS
The U.S. Senate was in session this week, while the House was in recess.
House Passes FY 2013 Homeland Security Spending Bill
On June 7, the full House approved H.R. 5853, the fiscal year (FY) 2013 funding measure for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and related programs. The vote for passage was 234-182. The bill would fund DHS operations at $39.1 billion, an amount that is $393 million below the President’s request, and a decrease of $484 million below current year funding totals. This bill is a companion to the Senate version, S. 3216, passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 22. The Senate panel’s recorded vote was 27-3. The Senate bill totals $45.2 billion in discretionary spending.
The following funding amounts are for programs of interest to The American Legion, and include:
• $11.9 billion for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Senate bill, $10.2 billion in the House version;
• $10.3 billion for the U.S. Coast Guard in the Senate measure, $10 billion in the House bill;
• $7.6 billion for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in the Senate bill, while the House version allocates $5.1 billion;
• $5.6 billion for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the Senate version, $5.5 billion in the House bill;
• $1.8 billion for state and local grant programs for “first responders in the House measure , with the Senate bill giving this program $1.4 billion;
• $1.6 billion for the U.S. Secret Service in both bills:
• $930 million for U.S. Air Marshals in the Senate measure, $880 million in the House bill; and,
• $258 million for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in the Senate bill, while the House would allocate $256 million.
S. 3216 now goes to the Senate for consideration and passage.
LEGISLATIVE DIVISION ACTIONS
Senate Subpanel Receives DOD Appropriations Testimony
On June 6 The American Legion attended the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Defense hearing which took testimony from Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense and General Martin Dempsey, USA, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The hearing with the Secretary of Defense is traditionally the last before considering the Department of Defense (DOD) appropriations legislation.
Subcommittee chairman Daniel Inouye (HI) opened the hearing and commented on the difficult economic situation and the various threats around the globe. This included, but was not limited to, cyber warfare and the fallout from the Arab Spring. He also brought up DOD faces an across-the-board spending reduction if sequestration is allowed to go into effect.
Secretary Panetta said a new national strategy would have been needed even if the economy was stronger as US presence declines in Afghanistan. The reality is terrorism exists around the globe and there is a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. There are also growing concerns about cyber intrusions and attacks. He does not think the nation has to choose between national security and fiscal security. However, difficult decisions need to be made.
The military will be smaller and leaner in the future. It must be more deployable, flexible, and technologically advanced. The most serious challenges are in Asia and the Middle East. In order not to repeat the mistakes of the past, the force drawdown must be managed carefully. He warned against hollowing out the force, which will happen if reductions are not taken appropriately. There must be a balanced approach in budget cuts. At the same time, the country must not break faith with those who serve and their families.
The Administration’s budget request complies with the spending levels in the Budget Control Act. Spending reductions are derived from several areas, including spending efficiencies. Support functions are streamlined, IT functions are consolidated, and military construction projects are re-phased. Panetta repeated the appeal for more base closings. He stressed the importance of allowing the force to become smaller and the importance of not maintaining more force structure than is actually needed. Panetta spoke about the various changes in the ships, airplanes, and other major systems needed by the various Services.
Panetta said DOD is planning joint training with other countries. US forces would go into the other countries for joint training exercises that would also serve to build up those countries’ capabilities. He stressed this is not a case of the US promising to protect and fight for those countries and to replace their need for their own militaries.
Panetta spoke of the importance of building and maintaining the most technologically advanced force. He emphasized the importance of maintaining a strong Reserve and National Guard as this is essential to the ability to quickly mobilize.
Panetta said the greatest strength of the military is the men and women who serve. Thus, family assistance programs, wounded warrior programs, and other quality of life programs must be sustained. However, savings and cost constraints must be found within the compensation area. Pay raises are included in the budget request for the next two years, but payroll savings must be found after that. He said, “I’ve got to do something” to control health care cost growth”, but he did not actually discuss the President’s copayment and user fee increases. He understands concerns about reducing overhead costs in healthcare administration; however, if the Pentagon does not get requested spending reductions and proposals, then the savings have to be found elsewhere in the budget.
Panetta also said there is no way to cut half a trillion dollars out of the budget and not impact the states. The key is to make the cuts in ways and places that support the national strategy. He expressed his concern over provisions in the House authorization and appropriations bills and the Senate authorization bill that reverse Pentagon decisions in various areas, such as preventing the retirement of several ships.
Panetta said there have been additional costs in 2012 that had not been anticipated when the fiscal year 2012 budget was passed. This includes higher fuel costs, higher supply costs in Afghanistan due to the closure of supply routes in Pakistan, and the need for more troops and funds for other responses to terrorism. He asked for support for the reprogramming request the Pentagon has submitted.
General Dempsey said the budget request represents a responsible approach to the nation’s security with “modest reforms” in compensation and benefits. Practical reform is needed to meet escalating personnel costs. To do otherwise is to put the entire system at risk.
During the questions and answers portion, Chairman Inouye brought up the possible impacts of sequestration, such as a projected 1 percent increase in the national unemployment rate. Panetta agreed with this job loss estimate, but said DOD is not a jobs program, and job losses would impact DOD employees, contractors, and other businesses. Sequestration would also require cuts to be made in other areas. Basically, sequestration is a 20 percent across-the-board cut of all programs. Dempsey added DOD would not be able to pay all of its TRICARE bills.
Sen. Hutchinson (TX) questioned whether the US is carrying too much of the burden in NATO. Panetta agreed member nations must build their own capabilities. He is concerned those governments will continually cut back on their defense spending and shift the burden of future missions (such as Libya) on the US. Specifically, Hutchinson questioned the size of the military construction budget in Germany, particularly for things such as elementary and secondary schools. (The Senator does support funding to rebuild the hospital in Landstuhl.) She also asked whether the future force size in Germany, as the US moves to a rotational model for training rather than forward deploying servicemembers with families, justifies this construction.
Sen. Durbin (IL) brought up the growth in contractor use, especially with service contracts. He believes there is money to be saved eliminating over-spending, cost overruns, and just plain waste in this area.
Sen. Harkin (IA) spoke in favor of allowing individuals with disabilities to serve in the military. A pilot program is supposed to be created, but nothing is happening. Panetta agreed a pilot program should be set up to allow these people to serve and promised to follow up on getting the pilot program started.
Sen. Collins (ME) asked the Pentagon to provide a detailed plan about what would be cut if the sequester goes into effect.
Sen. Coats (IN) questioned the Administration’s release of information about individuals involved with the killing of bin Laden, as well as other security leaks. Panetta agreed secure information, including the identities of those involved with top secret missions, must never be revealed. He assured the senator no “Hollywood entities” were provided with information concerning the bin Laden mission.
Sen. Graham (SC) asked Panetta when layoff notices will have to be sent out, if sequestration goes into effect. Panetta’s answer was ‘60 to 90 days ahead of time’. This includes DOD civilian employees. Graham expressed agreement with Panetta to restrain TRICARE and healthcare costs, even if it means charging military retirees more money to access the system. He also agrees with the need to restructure military retirement.
Sen. Murray (WA) expressed her concern for current servicemembers and veterans regarding the events at Madigan, with the changing of PTSD diagnoses. She said this has caused servicemembers to lose trust in the military healthcare system. Murray is pleased with the Army’s move to review all PTSD diagnoses, back to 2001. Panetta assured her the other Services are reviewing all of their disability evaluation cases as far back as 2001. Murray also expressed outrage that, five years after the first pilot, the integrated disability evaluation system (IDES) is still “fundamentally flawed” and standard business practices are only just now being crafted. Panetta said VA Secretary Shinseki and he are also not satisfied. Part of the problem is the bureaucratic nature of both DOD and VA. (If Murray has her way, future hearings will be held on the issue of changed PTSD diagnoses and the IDES.)
One additional comment from Secretary Panetta was a stress for the need for national cyber security capabilities. Panetta and Dempsey agreed DOD has enough money in the budget request for this, but Congress needs to build protections in other areas, especially the Defense industrial complex and the power grids.
Letters of Support
The American Legion on June 13 sent a letter of support to Sen. Jon Tester (MT), giving our organization’s support for an amended version of S. 798, legislation entitled the “Veterans Heritage Firearm Act of 2011.” This measure provides for an amnesty period for veterans and their family members to register firearms which were acquired prior to October 31, 1968 by veterans serving outside the continental United States. The bill reiterates this country’s commitment to the protection of its citizens’ right to bear arms.
The American Legion on June 14 sent a letter of support to Rep. Mike Coffman (CO), giving our organization’s support for draft legislation entitled the “Veterans Employment Act of 2012.” This measure would require the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to consider veterans before non-veterans with respect to the competitive service at the department.
On June 14 The American Legion sent a letter of support to Rep. Allyson Schwarz (PA), giving our organization’s support for draft legislation entitled the “Servicemembers Access to Justice Act of 2012.” This measure would amend title 30 of the United States Code to improve the enforcement of employment and reemployment rights of members of the uniformed services.
I read your Legislative Update and would like to bring something to your attention, with regard to TRICARE co-payments. Being Retired Air Force with 32 years of Active, Reserve and National Guard Service, I am fortunate to participate in TRICARE for Life. For the past several years while my wife has been taking medication for her illness, we have been paying $3.00 per 30-day prescription. However, that co-pay has recently been increased to $5.00. Are you aware of this increase? I DON'T GET IT. The cost of living goes up 3% but they raise the co-pay 66 2/3%.
Answer:Existing law allows that the Secretary of Defense can change prescription co-pays to whatever amount he/she deems necessary. Like other aspects of TRICARE fees and co-pays, this can sometimes be done without consent or approval of Congress. During the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) debates last year, The American Legion was successful in lobbying for Congress to change the law so that future increases to TRICARE premiums could not exceed the annual COLA. However, through this change, other aspects like the pharmacy co-pays were overlooked. In this year’s discussion of the TRICARE aspect of the 2012 NDAA, The American Legion and other organizations are attempting to codify similar protections to other aspects of the TRICARE program. We are aware of this creeping of costs and have attempted to address it by including language to limit increases to no greater than the COLA for any given year. That way if you received a 3% COLA, it could be calculated to go up no more than 3%. One of the existing proposals for pharmacy co-pays limits it to whole dollars, so a 3% increase wouldn’t change the co-pay for a number of years (because you would have to have a whole dollar amount - not just $3.09, 3.19, 3.24, etc.). Without this, current law will continue to allow for arbitrary and capricious increases of any level the secretary desires. Unless we limit it to the COLA, the increases will quickly erode any COLA.