Legislative Newsletter Update 3 March 2009 

3/3/2009 

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



       

In this issue:

  • President Requests $533.7 Billion for Defense in Base Budget
  • Other requests included in the budget
  • TRICARE Fee Increases, Military Pay Topics at Military Personnel Hearing
  • New Legislation Spotlight




  •   

    President Requests $533.7 Billion for Defense in Base Budget


    The Defense Department’s portion of the $3.5 trillion fiscal 2010 budget outline released by President Obama last week is $533.7 billion, a 4 percent increase over the last fiscal year.  He is also requesting $75 billion in emergency spending for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq for this fiscal year and $130 billion for fiscal 2010.  The request anticipates continued American withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq in fiscal 2010.

    Speaking to reporters in the Pentagon Feb. 26, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “Over the past few months, different figures for the department's base budget top line have been the subject of speculation and debate, including a draft budget of more than $580 billion.  That last figure represented a notional effort I authorized to begin shifting war costs in a significant way from the supplementals to the base budget, additional procurement, and anticipated real costs in terms of health care benefits and pay.  That proposal was not formally submitted anywhere outside this building."

    “The number that matters is the one announced by the President today, and it represents an increase of more than $20 billion over last year's Defense appropriation.  In our country's current economic circumstances, I believe that represents a strong commitment to our security. “

    Without singling out any specific program, Gates added over the next few weeks, “hard choices” will have to be made on the defense budget.  He also acknowledged that personnel costs, particularly health care, were rising.

    On weapons systems, the budget outline said, “The administration will set realistic requirements and stick to them and incorporate ‘best practices’ by not allowing programs to proceed from one stage of the acquisition cycle to the next until they have achieved the maturity to clearly lower the risk of cost growth and schedule slippage.”

    The budget outline requests pay raises of 2.9 percent for military members and 2 percent for federal employees.  The 2.9 percent for the military would match, but not exceed, average private-sector wage growth. 

    The President’s request also supports funding for the Army’s 15,000 increase in end strength to 547,400 soldiers in the active force by the end of 2009, two to three years ahead of schedule according to a fact sheet released with the budget proposal.  It goes on to state that the accelerated schedule will “reduce stress on service members and their families, while ensuring heightened readiness for a full spectrum of military operations.”

    The request also calls for expansion of concurrent receipt and Veterans Disability Compensation, part of the AUSA's legislative agenda.

    While the budget request does not fully explain the proposal, defense officials said it would expand eligibility to service members medically retired with less than 20 years of service.  The Association strongly urges the Administration and Congress to eliminate the deduction of VA disability compensation from earned military retired pay for all disabled retirees.   While we will continue to push for full concurrent receipt, we also recognize that any gains made towards our goal, especially in these tough economic times, is a win and great news for disabled retirees. 


    Other requests included in the budget


    --Increase VA funding by $25 billion over the next five years.  The budget would expand eligibility for VA health care to non-disabled veterans earning modest incomes and those who do not have service-connected conditions. These “Category 8” veterans have been barred from enrolling in VA’s health care system since 2003.  Letting them back in would bring more than 500,000 more veterans into the system by 2013.

    --Support continuing efforts to “improve the medical care and housing for wounded, ill and injured service members.  The Army will complete new wounded warrior complexes at posts throughout the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii, as well as in Germany.

    --Expand Pentagon and VA pilot programs to expedite the processing of injured troops through the Disability Evaluation System.  The pilot programs are designed to substantially cut the time required to determine disability ratings and begin paying benefits to wounded troops.

    --Continue to “sustain and modernize barracks and dormitories housing service members around the world and work to end all inadequate housing for military families.”

    --Fund a comprehensive Defense Department traumatic brain injury registry, “including a single point of responsibility to track incidents and recovery.”  The military services also will increase the number of mental health professionals integrated with deployed units “to better channel medical attention to those who need it quickly.”

    What is not mentioned in the budget outline is an increase in TRICARE fees.  Unlike the past several budget submissions made by the previous administration, there is no healthcare-related budget reduction indicated for the defense budget in either the discretionary or mandatory spending categories. 

    Since complete details on the President’s budget proposal are not expected to be released until late March or early April, we will wait to cheer the absence of increased TRICARE fees. 

     

    TRICARE Fee Increases, Military Pay Topics at Military Personnel Hearing


    Representatives of The Military Coalition (TMC), a group 35 military, veterans and uniformed services organizations of which AUSA is a member, offered testimony on the TMC’s legislative priorities to the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee last week.

    Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., said in her opening statement, “The current economic climate is a challenge to all Americans, and our service members and their families are not immune to its effects.  As such, we expect that the coming defense budget will be streamlined and finding additional funds to address the multitude of important personnel programs, particularly the increases in health care costs, will be even more challenging this year.  More so than ever, we will be forced to make difficult decisions, and it is important for the subcommittee to understand the priorities for service members, retirees and their families when we make these decisions.

    The Ranking Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C. said that he is committed to an annual pay raise of one half of one percent above the Employment Cost Index (ECI), improving reserve component retirement compensation, eliminating concurrent receipt and SBP-DIC offsets, and prohibiting substantial increases in health care cost sharing, all long-time AUSA goals.

    “It has been said that a time was coming when we might not be able to come up with the offsets for these proposals.  However, in today’s environment, when the Congress and the President have committed to spending trillions of dollars – that is thousands of billions – to rescue the economy, it’s my view that the Congress can find the additional funding required to protect the men and women, and their families, who make incredible daily sacrifice in service to our nation," Rep. Wilson said in his opening statement.

    A proposal to increase TRICARE fees was also discussed.  Testifying on behalf of the TMC, Co-Chair Steve Strobridge testified, “TRICARE costs are inflated by unique military requirements and documented inefficiencies, and DoD has lots of options to cut costs without passing beneficiaries the bill.  We think the Pentagon needs to focus more on fixing TRICARE and less on trying to charge more for it.”  Asked if The Military Coalition would support a subcommittee effort to prevent fee increases for FY2010, Strobridge answered, “Definitely.”

    AUSA-suggested letters you can send to your elected officials on many of these issues can be accessed by visiting our website at www.ausa.org.  Click on “Contact Congress.”

    To see all of the TMC’s legislative goals, please visit the TMC website at www.themilitarycoalition.org


    New Legislation Spotlight


    Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C. and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. John Carter, R-Texas introduced the Military Spouses Residency Relief Act (S. 475 and H.R. 1182) that would allow military spouses to maintain or change residency when their family relocates due to military orders. 
     
    Under current law, service members have the ability to claim a state of residence and maintain that residency regardless of where military orders may send them.  Unfortunately, military spouses are not granted this same benefit.  In addition to the stress of looking for a job every few years, this inequality means that military spouses have to deal with the other headaches of moving.  
     
    A long-time goal of AUSA (2009 resolution 09-01, Point 22) the Military Spouses Residency Relief Act would give a military spouse who moves out of state because of military orders the same option to claim one state of domicile, regardless of where they move.   If a spouse chooses to take advantage of this, the service member and the spouse must have the same state of residence.  This bill makes the move from station to station easier, removing the need to update drivers’ licenses, filing tax returns for multiple states, and changing vehicle and voter registrations with each move.