Finally – authorization and appropriations bills pass Congress

Thursday, January 01, 2015

By the time AUSA NEWS goes to press, the 113th Congress will be history.

Before they left town, however, they did manage to pass the defense authorization and appropriations bills.

This is very good news for the Department of Defense.

There were no big surprises for the Army in the 2015 versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015 and Omnibus Appropriations Act, but also no relief from the defense spending caps enacted in 2013 or from the threat of sequestration in 2016 if Congress is unable to reach an agreement with the White House on budget priorities.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal 2015 would provide $577.1 billion for DoD. The legislation:

Freezes pay of general and flag officers and reinstates the cap on retired pay of general and flag officers

Reduces the rate of increase in the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) to provide that BAH will cover 1 percent less than average out-of-pocket costs for housing. This provision is for one-year only.

Authorizes a one-year $3.00 increase in pharmacy copays for non-active duty TRICARE beneficiaries who fill prescriptions outside of military treatment facilities; requires that non-formulary prescriptions be available through the national mail order program; and requires that non-generic prescription maintenance medications be refilled through military treatment facility pharmacies or the national mail-order pharmacy program.

Authorizes the payment of the Survivor Benefit Plan annuity to a special needs trust for certain disabled dependent children.

Authorizes $25 million in impact aid for assistance to local educational agencies impacted by the enrollment of dependent children of military members and DoD civilian employees and $5 million in impact aid for schools with large numbers of children of military members and DoD civilian employees with severe disabilities.

Exempts those who first join military service prior to Jan. 1, 2016, from the reduced cost of living adjustment (COLA) applicable to military retired pay made by Section 403 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 (Public Law 113-67).

Authorizes a three-month deferral of retirement for officers selected for selective early retirement.

The bill also establishes a commission on the future of the Army that will study and recommend an appropriate force structure mix between active and reserve components.

That report is due in February 2016.

The president also decided to hold pay increases to 1 percent which after much discussion and dissention between the two houses of Congress, the Congress agreed to.

In the fiscal 2015 defense spending bill, appropriators ordered the Defense Department to take steps to protect the reputations of service members separated as part of the drawdown.

They directed that the DD Form 214, a service member’s discharge and separation document, be revised. "There is concern that the narrative codes could make a permanent, negative mark on the records of dedicated service members who served honorably," lawmakers said in the report accompanying the funding bill.

Overall, the bill provides $490.2 billion for the Defense Department, a $3.3 billion increase over the 2014 budget. It also provides $64 billion for overseas contingency operations.

As requested, active Army personnel strength is set at 490,000 for fiscal 2015, a drop of 30,000 from 2014.

Army Reserve strength is set at 202,000, a drop of 3,000.

Army National Guard strength for 2015 is 350,200, a 4,000 reduction. The funding bill includes $41.1 billion to cover Army personnel costs, with only minor changes from the Army’s request.

The final bill includes $31.9 billion in operations and maintenance funding for the active Army, plus $2.5 billion for the Army Reserve and $6.2 billion for the National Guard.

There is $3.9 billion included for Army aviation procurement, mostly for rotary aircraft.

Lawmakers express concern about Army plans to divest of TH-67 and OH-58 helicopters, and are asking for an Army report on what will happen to the airframes and what effect divestment might have on the rotary wing industrial base.

Major initiatives include:

Funding for a one percent pay raise for military personnel;

$3.6 million for Health Artifacts and Imaging Management Systems to support ongoing efforts between DoD and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to better manage veterans’ health information and improve care;

$3 million for the Healthy Base Initiative, which promotes wellness practices for troops and their families living on base;

Adding $190 million to maintain operations at commissaries, pending the commission on compensation report due next year;

Provides $88 million for Basic Allowance for Housing in accordance with the authorized one percent reduction in fiscal year 2015;

$13 million for an initiative to provide pre-kindergarten through 12th grade Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education activities for military children;

An increase of $2.3 billion for readiness shortfalls, including $900 million for facility sustainment, and an additional $202.5 million for depot maintenance;

Adding $341 million to modernize up to 12 Apache helicopters and nine Black Hawk helicopters, and includes a bill provision limiting the transfer of Apache helicopters out of the National Guard in 2015 until enactment of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015; and,

Eliminating the five percent discount for tobacco and tobacco-related products sold at military exchanges.

The 114th Congress will convene on Jan. 6.

In other news, an Army Reserve brigadier general is the next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on military personnel.

Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., an Iraq War veteran, will succeed Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., a former Army Reserve and South Carolina Army National Guard officer, as head of the congressional panel that oversees military personnel policy, health care and benefits.

Announcement of the new position was made Thursday by Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who will be House Armed Services Committee chairman in January when the 114th Congress convenes.

The-53-year-old Heck served in Operation Joint Endeavor, Operation Noble Eagle and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

He was promoted to brigadier general in July.

Heck is a doctor, who specialized in emergency and military medicine, and is an expert on medical support for military special operations forces.

In the House of Representatives since 2011, Heck is a member of the Army Caucus, Guard and Reserve Caucus and the Doctors Caucus.