29 July 2013 Legislative News Update 

7/29/2013 

Legislative News is AUSA Government Affairs Directorate's
weekly electronic newsletter, and is published
every Monday when Congress is in session.




In this issue:

  • House Approves Defense Spending Bill
  • Veterans' Legislation Advances

★★★
HOUSE APPROVES DEFENSE SPENDING BILL

The House's approval of the fiscal 2014 defense appropriations bill last week means that they have now passed all three of the major defense-related bills. The Military Construction/VA bill and the Defense authorization bill were approved on June 4 and June 14, respectively.

The appropriations bill provides $512.5 billion in non-war funding and includes $85.8 billion in funding for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO).

The bill includes a 1.8 percent pay raise for military personnel, and prohibits the Defense Department from furloughing civilian workers, including Dual Status Military Technicians, beginning on Oct. 1.

AUSA would like to thank Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, for introducing an amendment that would prohibit any new fees on the TRICARE for Life program. Her amendment was approved by voice vote.

In a speech on the House floor, Hanabusa said, “Year after year, we hear from the Defense Department that healthcare costs for our soldiers and veterans are spiraling out of control, and that TRICARE is ‘crippling’ DoD with its rise in costs. Yet, for the past two fiscal years, the Pentagon has found a way to reprogram hundreds of millions of dollars from defense health accounts to ‘higher priorities.’

“DoD’s own documents prove military health costs are not ‘exploding’ – the combined personnel and health care costs are less than one-third of DoD budget, the same as they’ve been for 30 years.

“The relatively low cost of healthcare and strong benefits are the fundamental elements are necessary to not just recruit, but also sustain an all-volunteer force. Significant cuts to the critical incentive packages that sustain a top-quality career force will undermine long-term retention and readiness.”

The White House has already issued a veto threat to the spending bill. A statement from the Office of Management and Budget said that enacting the legislation would “hurt our economy and require draconian cuts to middle-class priorities."

What’s next: It’s all up to the Senate now. The Defense Appropriations Subcommittee is scheduled to mark up its version of the bill tomorrow with approval expected by the full committee on Thursday. However, the likelihood that it is passed before the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year is slim. The Senate heads out for its five week August recess on Friday and they are slated to only work 16 legislative days in September. The schedule constraint coupled with the budget battles expected later this year probably means that another continuing resolution is on the horizon. There have been no details released on that yet.


VETERANS’ LEGISLATION ADVANCES

A package of bills approved by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee last week would improve benefits and health care services for veterans and their families. The package also includes a measure that would bring the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in line with a Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.

The legislation cleared by the committee would:

  • Improve the delivery of care and benefits for veterans who experienced sexual trauma while serving in the military.
  • Extend to caregivers for veterans of all eras eligibility for the family caregiver program. This program currently provides services and benefits – including a monthly stipend, reimbursement for travel expenses, counseling, training and respite care – to caregivers of seriously injured post-9/11 veterans.
  • Expand eligibility for benefits for spouses married in states that allow gays to wed. The measure would bring the VA into conformance with a June 26 ruling by the Supreme Court that struck down a federal law that unconstitutionally denied federal benefits for all legally married couples.
  • Require quarterly reports to Congress on efforts to eliminate a backlog of benefits claims by 2015. VA would have to detail both the projected and actual number of claims received, pending, completed and on appeal.
  • Improve veterans’ health care through increased access to complementary and alternative medicine, chiropractic care and transportation services.
  • Expand access to education benefits for veterans and their survivors, including making recently-separated veterans eligible for tuition at the in-state rate and improving the level of benefits offered to survivors of service members killed on active duty.
  • Expand employment opportunities for veterans through new programs that will encourage employers to hire veterans and by renewing the popular Veterans Retraining Assistance Program from VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011.
  • Provide cost-of-living increases in veterans’ disability payments at the same rate as Social Security benefits.
  • Require a judge’s order to prohibit a veteran who has been determined to be mentally incompetent by the VA from purchasing or possessing a firearm.

The committee has not identified funding to pay for the legislation; therefore, the legislation will not go to the Senate floor for debate until the Congressional Budget Office provides cost estimates. Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pledged to work to find funding— and also said he doesn’t want Congress to scrimp on veter­ans programs.