Legislative News is AUSA Government Affairs Directorate's
weekly electronic newsletter, and is published
every Monday when Congress is in session.
In this issue:
- Help for Military Homeowners?
- Senate's Economic Package Includes Defense/VA Funding
- Afghanistan, Acquisition Among Topics at Hearing
- Change in the Pentagon
- New Legislation Spotlight
Help for Military Homeowners?
The Senate’s version of the economic stimulus package includes a provision that would help military homeowners affected by the depressed housing market.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (S.336) includes $410.9 million that would expand the Defense Department’s Homeowners Assistance Program (HAP). A press release from the Senate Appropriations Committee stated, “Currently, HAP provides financial assistance to military and some civilian personnel who suffer severe financial loss or face foreclosure when property values decline as a result of a base closure. In the current nationwide mortgage crisis, it is virtually impossible to demonstrate a direct connection between home values and base closures, and military families throughout the country facing orders to relocate are suffering from the consequences of plummeting property values."
The provision temporarily extends HAP benefits to all military personnel who receive permanent orders to relocate during the nationwide housing crisis; and expands HAP benefits to wounded warriors who must relocate for medical treatment, or to surviving spouses.
Specifically, the provision would cover servicemembers and federal civilian employees in these categories who purchased a primary residence before July 1, 2006, and who receive PCS orders or suffered a wound, injury, or illness while deployed between that date and September 30, 2012. The wounded, ill, or injured member/employee would qualify only if the condition were subsequently rated as at least 30% disabling by DoD or the VA and the member was reassigned for medical treatment/rehabilitation or was medically retired. In the event the member died of the injury or illness or was killed in the line of duty while deployed, the survivor would receive the coverage.
The stimulus bill specifies that this is a special program which can only be used once and only for a primary residence. Further, a homeowner who previously received payment under the HAP would be ineligible.
It should be noted that this provision is not in the House version of the economic stimulus package. However, AUSA has expressed its support of the provision to key lawmakers in the House and will work to ensure it is included in the final bill.
Senate's Economic Package Includes Defense/VA Funding
The Senate’s economic stimulus package mirrors the House version in that it includes funding for military and Veterans Affairs construction projects. $2.4 billion in military construction funding includes:
--Child Development Centers: $353.8 million for child development centers at U.S. military installations.
--Health and Dental Clinics: $314.5 million for military family health care clinics.
--Warrior Transition Complexes: $505 million to meet the medical and social service needs of wounded military personnel and their families.
--Military Family Housing construction, repair, and upgrades: $135 million to improve housing conditions and speed the availability of housing to military families.
--Barracks and Dormitories: $831.5 million to provide needed new and replacement housing for America’s military troops.
--Army National Guard $150 million for community-based readiness centers.
-$3.2 billion for Facilities Sustainment, Restoration and Modernization to be used to invest in energy efficiency projects and to improve the repair and modernization of Department of Defense facilities to include Defense Health facilities.
VA construction funding ($3.7 billion) includes:
--Hospital and cemetery construction: $994 million to begin construction of new hospitals and expedite the construction of projects already underway, and $111.5 million for national cemetery construction.
--Minor construction: $939.8 million for construction projects, repairs and expansion of VA medical facilities, VA national cemeteries, and Veterans Benefits Administration facilities and to initiate energy conservation projects.
--Medical facilities repair and maintenance: $1.37 billion to address the backlog of maintenance and repairs at VA medical facilities.
--Grants for State Extended Care Facilities: $258 million for the repair and construction of State long-term care veterans’ homes.
--National cemetery infrastructure repair: $60 million repairs to national cemeteries and monuments.
Debate on the economic stimulus package began in the Senate today. Once the bill is passed, the House and Senate will start conference negotiations to iron out their differences.
Afghanistan, Acquisition Among Topics at Hearing
Testifying before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “there is little doubt that our greatest military challenge right now is Afghanistan.”
He warned that even with an additional 12,000 more American troops in Afghanistan by the end of the summer and increased support from NATO countries, the conflict there will be a “long slog.”
He also said, “Frankly my view is that we need to be very careful about the nature of the goals we set for ourselves in Afghanistan.” If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose, because nobody has that kind of time, patience or money.”
Secretary Gates said goals should be very near term in Afghanistan. “My own personal view is that our primary goal is to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists to attack the United States and our allies, and whatever we need to do flows from that objective.”
He added, “The ideology we face was incubated there when Afghanistan became a failed state and the extremists have largely returned their attention to that region in the wake of reversals in Iraq.”
Change in the Pentagon
Secretary Gates also signaled that his agenda under the Obama Administration would differ greatly than that under the Bush Administration starting with the Pentagon’s acquisition and procurement system.
During his time under President Bush, Secretary Gates pushed for larger defense funding, however, in his appearances before the Armed Services Committees he said the end of soaring defense budgets was ending.
“The spigot of defense funding opened by 9/11 is closing. With two major campaigns ongoing, the economic crisis and resulting budget pressures will force hard choices on this department.”
Those hard choices include the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS). Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., asked where Secretary Gates ranked the FCS program among his priorities. While Gates praised the Army’s 2008 moves to speed the fielding of some FCS systems, he said, “Nothing is off the table at this point.”
In his written statement to the committees, he offered general thoughts on systemic problems within the Defense acquisition process.
“Entrenched attitudes throughout the government are particularly pronounced in the area of acquisition: a risk-averse culture, a litigious process, parochial interests, excessive and changing requirements, budget churn and instability, and sometimes adversarial relationships within the Department of Defense and between DoD and other parts of the government. At the same time, acquisition priorities have changed from defense secretary to defense secretary, administration to administration, and congress to congress – making any sort of long-term procurement strategy on which we can accurately base costs next to impossible. Add to all of this the difficulty in bringing in qualified senior acquisition officials. Over the past eight years, for example, the Department of Defense has operated with an average percentage of vacancies in the key acquisition positions ranging from 13 percent in the Army to 43 percent in the Air Force.”
New Legislation Spotlight
In March 2008, the Defense Department narrowed the definition of combat-related disabilities. The regulation change restricted the definition of combat-related injuries to cases where a Purple Heart was awarded or a result of armed conflict only.
Previously, injuries were deemed combat-related if they:
--were attributable to the award of a Purple Heart;
--were a result of armed conflict;
--occurred while engaged in hazardous duty;
--occurred in the performance of duty under conditions simulating war; or,
--were through an instrumentality of war.
As a consequence of the Pentagon's regulation change, if an injury is not classified as combat-related, then VA benefits may be affected.
In response, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., introduced H.R. 593, a bill that would expand coverage for wounded soldiers who were not injured specifically in armed conflict. Additionally, the legislation would remove the Defense Department’s ability to redefine “combat-related disability. The bill currently has 23 co-sponsors and has been referred to the House Armed Services Committee for consideration.