Director, Government Affairs
Unfortunately, this month supplemental war funding legislation is still in the spotlight. Congress is working to pass the bills before Memorial Day so the Department of Defense will not have to make fiscal maneuver after fiscal maneuver to keep the money flowing to the troops.
By the time you read this, with luck, this issue will be behind us.
At the moment however, both House and Senate versions of the defense supplemental are in play.
The Senate’s version is out of committee but not yet on the floor at this writing. The House version is expected to be introduced soon. The bills may stall because of add-on items that do not have anything to do with funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Because the bill is one of the few appropriations bills likely to pass in the near future, it is in danger of becoming a Christmas tree with lots of extras attached to it.
Next up will be the defense authorization and appropriations legislation which will begin moving forward in both houses of Congress. Once each house passes its version of the bills, the legislation must go to conference where differences are ironed out.
This process, unfortunately, often drags on into the fall as political maneuvering competes with the necessity of finishing the process before the October beginning of the next fiscal year.
While there is no timeline yet, both House and Senate leaders hope to have the defense authorization and appropriations bills completed by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
In the House the Defense Authorization Bill has been passed by the full committee and is awaiting consideration on the floor. In the Senate, the mark up of its version of the Defense Authorization Bill is pending. That notwithstanding, based on past performance, it seems unlikely that Congress will have its funding work completed by the end of this fiscal year.
So there is a long road ahead, but AUSA will be monitoring the process closely and will make our voice heard if the issues our constituents care about are not properly addressed.
The good news is that both houses plan to include a 1.9 percent pay raise (a half percent higher than proposed by the administration) for military personnel, and that the Department of Defense has not included any increases in TRICARE fees and deductibles in its budget.
Both items are major legislative goals of AUSA.
Further, the House version of the authorization bill authorizes 7,000 additional personnel for the active Army to meet the demands of current combat operations should the Army decide that the additional forces are needed.
As stress on the force from repeated deployments becomes more and more apparent, Congress has begun to ignore the administration’s current position that it has enough troops.
AUSA’s position has long been that at least 700,000 active duty personnel are necessary for the Army to accomplish all that is being asked of it.
On another front, AUSA president Gen. Gordon Sullivan, USA, Ret., sent a letter to congressional leaders outlining his thoughts on national defense spending priorities in the coming years.
He did so in light of recent speeches by Secretary of Defense Gates that delivered a clear message that the secretary believes future defense budgets will not increase to a significant degree, if at all. Given that perception, he has begun the search for savings within his department.
Sullivan’s letter said in part, "Among the suggested contributors to the [DoD] savings plan are retiree health care fees and co-pays, and active duty pay and benefits increases. Congress has provided military retiree health care benefits that exceed those offered to civilians as an essential offset for the unique demands, harsh conditions, and sacrifices inherent in military service, which far surpass the demands made on civilian workers.
"Retired service members have endured a level of hardship that few Americans are willing to accept for even a short time, let alone for 20 to 30 years.
"AUSA believes strongly that the Department of Defense must expend greater effort on reducing health costs by eliminating inefficiencies in administration, contracting, and procurement rather than looking first to beneficiaries.
"Further, AUSA believes that only Congress should have the authority to change health care fees and co-pays as is outlined in pending legislation, HR 816.
"Soldiers count, and to maintain high recruiting and retention rates, we must not cut quality of life benefits. Congress has worked too hard to reverse the perceived ‘erosion of benefits’ of the past to see that productive work undone. At a time when our troops are engaged in fighting two wars, attempts to trim budget shortfalls at the expense of military pay and benefits would seem to be imprudent.
"Before making incremental cuts to quality of life programs, a more comprehensive look at personnel decisions for DoD post-Iraq/Afghanistan must be made. A prudent approach might be to base our people programs on the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy before addressing the component pieces of Soldier-related programs.
"We owe it to our brave service members – present and past – not to use their pay and benefits for budget-cutting target practice."
Sullivan has also gone to Capitol Hill to talk personally with key members to drive his points home.
I always end the column written closest to Memorial Day with the words of General Sullivan that get to the heart of the issue of service: "Reflect on the selfless and loyal service of hundreds of thousands of soldiers each and every day – service marked with honor and courage and exemplary of our values as an Army and as Americans – and remember to thank them and pray for them."