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 Congressional Updates

 Senate Committee Examines Possible Effects of Sequestration

 As the clock ticks to March 1, calls to not allow sequestration to go forward are getting louder on Capitol Hill this week. On February 12 Legion staff attended a Senate Armed Services Committee oversight hearing that took testimony from Department of Defense (DOD) witnesses who related the damage such cuts would make to operations to DOD and the services for the rest of the fiscal year.

 The witnesses who testified on the impacts of sequestration and/or a full-year continuing resolution on the Department of Defense were: Ashton B. Carter, Deputy Secretary of Defense; Robert F. Hale, Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller); General Martin E. Dempsey, USA, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff; General Raymond T. Odierno, USA, Chief of Staff of the Army; Admiral Mark E. Ferguson III, USN, Vice Chief of Naval Operations; General James F. Amos, USMC, Commandant of the Marine Corps; General Mark A. Welsh III, USAF, Chief of Staff of the Air Force; and General Frank J. Grass, NGB, Chief, National Guard Bureau.

 Deputy Secretary Carter said the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 changed the dates and size of sequestration. The first sequestration will begin on March 1; in addition, a second sequestration due to a breach in the discretionary spending caps for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 is scheduled to be implemented on March 27 (coinciding with the end of the concurrent resolution (CR) funding for FY 2013). The combined effects of these two sequestrations will require the Department to cut roughly $46 billion from the annualized level of funding provided on the FY 2013 CR, all in the last seven months of the fiscal year which ends September 30. Sequestration cuts would apply to all of the DOD budget, including the Overseas Contingency Operations portion, with only one significant exception. Exercising his statutory authority, the President indicated his intent to exempt all military personnel funding from sequestration. This means, as a result, other DOD budget accounts must be cut by larger amounts to offset this exemption. The estimate is the other accounts would be reduced by roughly eight percent by the March 1 sequestration order, and by nine percent if both March 1 and March 27 sequestration orders occur. (Note: The Office of Management and Budget would calculate the precise sequester percentage and provide it in the sequestration order.)

 Chairman Dempsey said approximately one third of these cuts would come from force structure. The other two-thirds of the reductions would occur in the modernization, compensation, and readiness accounts. He went on to say there is no foreseeable “peace dividend” on our horizon. The security environment is increasingly competitive and dangerous. End strength caps in the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act restrict our ability to manage our force, and therefore inhibit our ability to reduce spending as quickly and as responsibly as in past draw downs. Unlike past downturns that followed periods of significant modernization, much of our equipment is older or aging. And, health care costs are approaching unsustainable levels. [Resolution #55-F-2012]

 Base Closings and Sequestration

 On February 13 Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno said at a press conference that if sequestration is allowed to go into effect, the military will have to be allowed to close bases. General Odierno said the Army would be forced to become so much smaller that it would be “inefficient” not to close bases. The base closure process would be paid for by the money not being spent on additional forces. Last year, the Pentagon proposed two rounds of base closures to save money in the future. Congress refused this request. However at the press conference, Odierno observed that, with the level of spending reductions required by the combination of the sequester and the continuing resolution (which holds spending at Fiscal Year 2012 levels), Congress would be forced to allow the closures. [Resolution #55-F-2012]

 House Armed Services Committee Hearing: Sequestration & Budget issues

The committee met February 13 to discuss the impending implementation of the sequestration cuts, as well as the impact of operating under the continuing resolution (CR), which sets funding levels at Fiscal Year 2012 levels. Essentially this hearing mirrored the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing held earlier this week. The takeaway from this hearing is that the Committee leadership is opposed to any further reduction of Department of Defense (DOD) spending regardless of any other plans that Congress may propose.

 Witnesses included:

 Ashton B. Carter, Deputy Secretary of Defense, DOD

 Robert F. Hale, Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), DOD

 General Martin E. Dempsey, USA, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, DOD

 General Raymond T. Odierno, USA, Chief of Staff of the Army

 Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, DOD

 General James F. Amos, USMC, Commandant of the Marine Corps, DOD

 General Mark A. Welsh III, USAF, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, DOD

 General Frank J. Grass, NGB, Chief, National Guard Bureau, DOD

 Chairman Buck McKeon (CA) opened and said he agrees with the assessment of the military that Congress is on the brink of creating a hollow force. He acknowledged that no one has “clean hands” in this matter: not the President, Democrats, nor the Republicans. He said most Members voted for sequestration in the belief that politics would be put aside and the debt crisis would be fixed, saying “that was a bad bet.” He asked the witnesses to explain the damage the forces face between sequestration and continuation of the CR. He asked if a “red line” in cutting too much has been reached, or is about to be reached. He hopes both parties and the White House will soon come together to move the country towards fiscal health. He worries some will try to “soften the blow” by taking more from DOD but said he would not support any such plan.

 Ranking Member Adam Smith (WA) said sequestration has failed to move Congress to adopt a sound fiscal policy. He agreed that it will be a disaster for DOD and said it has already damaged the economy. He stated the federal debt and deficit must be reduced, but not through sequestration. He called upon Congress to remove the threat of sequestration once and for all. He then acknowledged sequestration is coming and he wanted to know how DOD will deal with it “intelligibly.”

 Secretary Carter agreed with the chairman that the “red line” has been reached. It is not just sequestration but also the CR and the basic uncertainty from month to month of what the future will hold in terms of the budget. He said part of the problem is that the money that is there is “in the wrong accounts.” There is not enough Operations and Maintenance money. There will be a readiness crisis this year and in the long term, if the cuts continue over the next ten years (as required by the Budget Control Act) DOD will not be able to carry out the national defense strategy. He called upon Congress to de-trigger sequestration and to pass regular appropriations bills.

 General Dempsey said that DOD is facing the specter of sequestration while still absorbing $487 billion in cuts from last year while operating under a CR while continuing to fight and resource a war. “This is unprecedented.” This puts the US at a greater risk of coercion by other parties, and puts the men and women serving their country at greater risk.

 General Odierno said he started his career in a hollow force and does not want to end it in one. He stressed every soldier serving around the globe will be impacted by these cuts. In addition, we do not know when and where the Army will be asked to deploy soldiers around the globe; the only thing for sure is that it will happen.

 Admiral Greenert said the Navy remains ready when it matters and where it matters, but the lack of an appropriations bill and sequestration will have an irreversible and debilitating impact on the Navy’s readiness through at least 2014.

 General Welsh said that while flying in Afghanistan will be protected, home station training will be curtailed in mid-March. Readiness levels will drop below acceptable levels by May. Investment programs will be disrupted, which will increase taxpayers’ costs in the long run.

 General Amos detailed various areas of risk sequestration and budget uncertainties imposed upon the Marine Corps. He said a fiscally-driven void of American political leadership will allow for new global threats to flourish, as US forces are unable to respond appropriately. He said he has been able to make short-term adaptations to adjust to the cost cutting, but by the end of the year over 50 percent of his forces will be below acceptable readiness levels.  “We are eating our seed corn.”

 General Grass noted the National Guard has completed its transformed from a strategic reserve into an operational reserve over the last ten years. [Resolution #55-F-2012]

 Same-Sex Couples Can Claim New Benefits by October 2013

 Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced on February 11 that military members and retirees with same-sex partners will qualify for up to 24 new benefits. Panetta noted in his memo to the service chiefs the department has “essentially completed” repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law. He instructed military leaders to “expand to changing our policies and practices to ensure fairness and equal treatment and to taking care of all of our service members and their families, to the extent allowable under law.”

 Two of the new benefits are available at the service member’s election: hospital visitation and Family Readiness Group membership. For 22 other benefits, service members and their same-sex partners may file a “declaration of domestic partnership.” That declaration entitles same-sex partners to military identification cards, commissary and exchange shopping privileges, child care and youth programs, sexual assault counseling, and the other benefits.

 Housing, medical and dental care, and overseas command sponsorship for same-sex partners are not included in this round of policy changes. Panetta noted those benefits are restricted under the Defense of Marriage Act, commonly known as DOMA, which defines “spouse” as someone married to a person of the opposite sex. The Supreme Court is reviewing the law, and is expected to rule on it later this year. The secretary wrote, “In the event that the Defense of Marriage Act is no longer applicable to the Department of Defense, it will be the policy of the department to construe the words ‘spouse’ and ‘marriage’ without regard to sexual orientation, and married couples, irrespective of sexual orientation, and their dependents, will be granted full military benefits.”

 Panetta’s guidance directed the services to make “every effort” to have systems in place to accept same-sex benefit requests by August 31. In no case may the services delay beyond October 1. Rolling out a new benefit takes time as regulations and instructions, systems and software all have to be updated, and workers will need to be trained in new processes.

 The Defense Department is working to see if the housing benefit can be added and is developing a mechanism to allow burial of same–sex partners at Arlington National Cemetery; however, the domestic partnership declaration is not feasible in cases where one or both partners have died.

 Retirees and their same-sex partners will be able to file the declaration once the new systems are in place. It is estimated that 5,600 same-sex couples include an active-duty service member, 3,400 include a Reserve or National Guard member, and 8,000 include a retired military member. The cost of implementing the new benefits is expected to be negligible.

 House VA Panel Examines Barriers to Quality Mental Health Care for Veterans

 On February 13, 2013, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing entitled “Honoring the Commitment: Overcoming Barriers to Quality Mental Health Care for Veterans”, which aimed at understanding the issues related to veteran mental health, and examining the VA’s ability to meet the needs of veterans suffering from mental health issues. 

 There were two panels of witnesses. Panel 1 consisted of M. David Rudd, Ph.D. ABPP, Dean, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Co-Founder and Scientific Director, National Center for Veteran Studies University of Utah; Linda Spoonster Schwartz, RN, Dr.PH, FAAN, Commissioner of Veterans’ Affairs State of Connecticut; Joy J. Ilem, Deputy National Legislative, Director Disabled American Veterans; and Ralph Ibson, National Policy Director, Wounded Warrior Project. 

 Panel 2 consisted of: The Honorable Robert A. Petzel, M.D., Under Secretary for Health Veterans, Health Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), accompanied by Dr. Mary Schohn, Director, Office of Mental Health Operations Office of Patient Care Services, Veterans Health Administration (VHA), VA; Dr. Sonja Batten, Deputy Chief Consultant for Specialty Mental Health Office of Patient Care Services, VHA; andDr. Janet Kemp, Director, Suicide Prevention and Community Engagement National Mental Health Program Office of Patient Care Services, VHA.

 The hearing began with opening statements by Chairman Jeff Miller (FL), and Ranking Michael Michaud (ME). Chairman Miller noted that, despite the metrics sometimes utilized by the VA, “The true measure of success with respect to mental health care is not how many people are hired, but how many people are helped,” highlighting the problem that despite increased funding and staffing, VA is still struggling to meet its obligations with regard to veterans, particularly those suffering from mental health problems. He went on to state, “it has become increasingly clear to me that VA is focused more on its process and not its outcomes.” 

 Ranking Member Michaud noted that “Fiscal Year 2012 tragically saw an increase in military suicides and for the third time in four years, the number of suicides surpassed the number of combat deaths. Couple that with the number of suicides in the veteran population of 18 to 22 per day and the picture becomes even more alarming.” He went on to state that “[While] I believe VA is headed in the right direction…I believe more can and must be done.”

 Dr. Rudd pointed out that “Prior to Iraq and Afghanistan, military service was actually protective, with military suicide rates noticeably lower than general population rates likely secondary to pre-enlistment screening, unit cohesion, the influence of a remarkable sense of purpose, and a warrior identity.” He noted that, while veteran suicide has remained relatively stable over the past 12 years, with an overall rate of 35.9/100,000 (38.3 for males) in 2009, it is “critical to recognize, though, that the rate is three times the national rate of 12.0 in 2009 and double the male suicide rate (19.2) for the general population. It is also reported that although the suicide rate among veterans rose 22 percent over the past decade the general population rate rose 31 percent.”

 Ms. Schwartz noted that “access to care is not the same as eligibility”. Veterans need to be able to access VA care close to where they live. She also noted that mental health treatment is not the same as physical health care, in that having the support of family members becomes much more critical. She stated that “While some VA facilities and individual programs have loosened the restrictions for providing services to family members either on an individual, couples or family therapy, serious consideration must be given to include these vital members of the veterans’ support system.”

 Ms. Illem noted Disabled American Veterans (DAV) urges “VHA [to] develop a number of short- and long-range goals to resolve existing problems identified by the OIG, GAO, Congress and the veterans’ service organization (VSO) community.” Part of the problem, she stated, was that the VSO community and VA only communicate through hearings. There should be more ways in which VA can receive feedback from the veteran community via the VSOs, she said.

 Mr. Ibson recognized that “Many of our warriors benefit greatly from the counseling and peer-support provided at Vet Centers,” but noted that “VA leaders are failing other warriors when they resist implementing a nearly two-year-old law that requires VA to provide peer-support to OEF/OIF veterans at VA medical facilities as well.” The problem, he suggested, is that in many ways, VA is a top-down, dictatorial organization, whose policies often end up getting in the way of effective treatment for veterans.

 In the second panel, Dr. Petzel highlighted VA accomplishments with regard to combating veteran suicide, by noting that since the inception of the VA’s suicide hotline, calls are up, but veterans who are actually suicidal are down. He also noted that “as of January 29, 2013, VA has hired 1,058 clinical providers and 223 administrative staff” of the goal of 1,600 providers and 300 support staff. He stated that these numbers put VA on track to fully comply with the August, 2012 executive order in this regard, as the order requires these positions to be filled by June 30, 2013.

 During questioning, Rep. John Runyan (NJ) asked whether there is any way in which VA can become more proactive rather than reactive on these issues. Dr. Petzel noted that the revamped Transition Assistance Program will be best way for VA to screen transitioning veterans for potential problems, in order to allow for a “hot transfer,” wherein the veteran is able to make a smooth transition from the military to VA, in a way that allows for VA to know which veterans are most at risk. Additionally, he highlighted the building of relationships with the veteran in order to facilitate truly open conversations, in order to get at real risk factors.


 Preparations for Washington Conference Going Forward

 The Legislative Division continues to work diligently in preparation for the upcoming Washington Conference, being held February 25-27. Legion Family members will converge on our nation’s capital for meetings, conferences, workshops, and lobbying their members of Congress to continue the work of The American Legion.

 Several weeks ago, Legislative Division staff members delivered packets to the offices of newly-elected members of Congress. These packets contained a personalized welcome letter, a drop sheet of our organization’s legislative priorities, a pamphlet outlining the Legislative Division’s Guiding Resolutions, and a DVD. These packets were hand-delivered in order that the Legislative staff could introduce themselves, and begin to develop working relationships with the new congressional staff members. In addition, a packet containing the drop sheet and Legislative Point Papers was sent to each Department; these will soon be posted on the Legion website ( ).

 The Legislative Division will be in charge of the “Commander’s Call” on Tuesday morning February 26. The agenda is still being developed, and prospective speakers are being considered. Legislative Commission Chairman Ken Governor (NY) is coming to Washington in two weeks to work with staff to prepare the agenda.

 American Legion Legislative Council

 The Legislative Division continues the task of re-building the membership of the National Legislative Council for the 113th Congress. Council recommendation forms were emailed to Department leadership in December, asking for nominations for new congressional members. Completed forms were due in the Legislative Division offices in Washington, DC by January 18. To date, 37 Departments have returned their Council nomination forms.

 The importance of the Legislative Council cannot be overstated. It is an especially important voice for The American Legion family, and the way in which members of Congress can be quickly contacted when legislative action is needed. Departments are urged to complete their nomination forms and return them to the Legislative Division offices as soon as possible.

 Update on Flag Amendment Bill

 On January 18, House Joint Resolution (H.J. Res.) 19 was introduced by Representative Jo Ann Emerson (MO). This legislation is 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 next task is finding cosponsors for this legislation. Please contact the offices of your representative and senators, and ask them to become cosponsors of the flag amendment in their respective chambers. [Res. 272-2012]