Legislative News is AUSA Government Affairs Directorate's
weekly electronic newsletter, and is published
every Monday when Congress is in session.
In this issue:
- Progress On Defense Bills
- Defense Secretary Directs Change to Ethics Regulations
PROGRESS ON DEFENSE BILLS
The House and Senate failed to conference a budget agreement; accordingly, there is a $91 billion difference between the two appropriations allocations. The lack of a budget agreement could create problems with getting any spending bills passed resulting in another continuing resolution come 1 October. In other words: The dysfunction in Congress continues. Added to the mix is the fact that unless the Administration and Congress can negotiate and reach a “grand bargain,” another sequester will cut 9.8 percent from defense spending.
In any event, the House is moving along with its work and the Senate is starting to work on theirs. Here is a breakdown of defense-related legislation.
· Fiscal 2014 Military Construction/Veterans’ Affairs
House. The Military Construction/Veterans’ Affairs spending bill for fiscal 2014 overwhelmingly cleared the House last week, making it the first piece of defense legislation to move forward.
The legislation provides a total of $157.8 billion for the upcoming fiscal year. Discretionary spending would receive $73.3 billion, $1.4 billion less than the President requested and $2.4 billion more than fiscal 2013 level after reductions forced by the budget sequester. Mandatory allocations would be $84.5 billion.
Included in the bill is a provision, offered by Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., that would cut the pay of Veterans’ Affairs Department officials by 25 percent unless the number of disability compensation claims older than 125 days is reduced at least 40 percent by July 2014.
“The pace with which the VA is examining claims is unacceptable and must be fixed,” said Kingston. “When a soldier puts his life on the line for this country, he shouldn’t be left waiting a year for help when he gets home. We have invested more than $500 million in this benefit management system over the last four years and the problem has only gotten worse. If the leadership at the VA cannot reduce the backlog, they should see their pay cut.”
The bill would provide more than $290 million to help the VA reduce the backlog, providing funds for its paperless claims-processing system and the digital scanning of medical and benefit records.
The House also approved an amendment that would bar funding for a new round of base realignments and closures.
Senate. The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to mark up their version of the Military Construction/VA bill, next week, making it the first of the Senate’s spending measures to move forward.
· Defense Authorization
House. The full House Armed Services Committee approved the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill last week. Consistent with the House budget, the bill authorizes $552.1 billion in spending for national defense and an additional $85.8 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations.
In meetings with Armed Services Committee staff, AUSA’s leadership outlined our position on several items we opposed in the President’s budget request. One was the proposed one percent pay raise for military personnel. AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan strongly believed that the one percent pay raise was wrong. It would have been the smallest since 1958 and the first time since 1999 that the increase had not at least matched average private sector wage growth. The Committee agreed and authorized a 1.8 percent raise instead that mirrors private sector wage growth.
As you are well aware, another issue we have fought against was the Administration’s push to increase some TRICARE fees and establish others. We could not be happier that the Committee agreed with us. In fact, a press release from the Committee outlined our position perfectly.
“The Committee has already put TRICARE on a sustainable path through reforms in several recent NDAAs. Those reforms connect TRICARE fee increases to retiree cost of living increases. DoD’s record of incorrectly calculating TRICARE costs and their repeated requests to transfer billions in unused funds out of the program to cover other underfunded defense priorities raises questions about repeated claims by the Department of Defense that the Defense Health Program is unsustainable.”
The bill includes a provision that will allow retirees to keep TRICARE Prime access after 1 October when the DoD reduces the availability of Prime to retired beneficiaries.
The Committee also addressed sexual assault in the military. Among the provisions they adopted are those that would strip commanders of their authority to dismiss a finding by a court martial; prohibit them from reducing guilty findings to guilty of a lesser offense; establish minimum sentencing guidelines; and, one that would allow victims of sexual assault to apply for a permanent change of station or unit transfer.
Debate and passage of the bill by the full House is expected this week.
Senate. The Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to start the mark up of their bill this week. This is where you can help. It’s terrific that the House saw things our way on the pay raise and proposed TRICARE fees, but that is only one step in the process. We have to get the Senate to go along with the House lead. Please send an AUSA-suggested letter to your Senators. Click on this link and then on the letter titled, “Protect Military Pay and Reject TRICARE Fee Increases.”
· Defense Appropriations
House. The House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee completed its markup of the fiscal 2014 defense spending bill last week and the full Appropriations Committee is scheduled to start its work this week. The draft bill provides $512.5 billion in non-war funding, a decrease of $5.1 billion below the fiscal year 2013 enacted level and $3.4 billion below the President’s request. This is approximately $28.1 billion above the current level caused by automatic sequestration spending cuts.
--Fully funds the authorized 1.8 percent pay raise for the military, instead of one percent as requested by the president.
--Rejects Administration proposals to increase/create TRICARE fees and adds $519 million for defense health care accounts. It also provides $246 million for cancer research, $225 million for medical facility upgrades, $125 million for traumatic brain injury and psychological health research, and $20 million for suicide prevention outreach programs.
--Includes $175 billion for operations and maintenance – $124 million below the request and $1.5 billion above the fiscal year 2013 enacted level. This contains essential funding for key readiness programs to prepare troops for combat and peacetime missions, flight time and battle training, equipment and facility maintenance, and base operations.
--Includes $922 million to restore reductions in the request to facility sustainment and modernization, $536 million for a fuel shortfall (estimated by GAO), and full funding for the Tuition Assistance program at $570 million. Additionally, the bill fully funds Sexual Assault Prevention and Response programs at $157 million, and it adds $25 million to expand sexual assault victim assistance programs.
--Contains $66.4 billion – $3.5 billion below the fiscal year 2013 enacted level and $1.1 billion below the President’s request – for research, development, testing, and evaluation of new defense technologies.
--Prohibits funding for transfers of Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. or its territories, prohibits funding to modify any facility in the U.S. to house detainees, and places conditions on the release of detainees to other countries.
The bill could reach the House floor by mid to late June.
Senate: There is no firm date for the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee mark up to start. We’ve heard that it could begin in July; however, that has not been confirmed.
DEFENSE SECRETARY DIRECTS CHANGE TO JOINT ETHICS REGULATION
AUSA and its 125 chapters’ core mission is to speak out for the men and women of the United States Army who proudly serve our country. Our chapters, made up entirely of volunteers, provide recreational and educational opportunities to soldiers and their families. Most importantly, they support our deployed soldiers and their families that are left behind.
A large stumbling block in our mission has been the Joint Ethics Regulation that only allowed us to assist junior enlisted families in need if the gift is $20 or less or $50 per annum. In fact, in our 2013 Resolutions we urge the Administration and Congress to enact legislation to remove impediments limiting or prohibiting not-for-profit organizations such as AUSA in supporting soldiers and their families.
This impediment was raised by our Assistant Director for Retiree and Veterans’ Affairs SGM Leroy Bussells, USA, Ret., recently at a roundtable discussion with new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
We are very pleased to announce that Bussells’ entreaty was acted on by Secretary Hagel. In a letter to Bussells, Hagel said, “I directed my staff to prepare a revision to the Joint Ethics Regulation that will allow certain enlisted military personnel to receive unsolicited gifts of a higher value.” Hagel’s letter continued, “This change is effective immediately and will be incorporated in the next revision of the DoD Standards of Conduct Directive.”A big salute to Secretary Hagel for recognizing the valuable service AUSA and other non-profit organizations provide to junior enlisted soldiers and their families who give so much to their country.