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18 June 2014 Legislative News Update

Association of the United States Army Logo - Eagle with Shield, Torch, Olive Branch
Wednesday, June 18, 2014

weekly electronic newsletter, and is published 
every Monday when Congress is in session.

 

  

In this issue:

  • Defense Spending Bill Heads to the Floor
  • AUSA on the Hill
  • Sticker Shock on VA Legislation

 

★★★

 

DEFENSE SPENDING BILL HEADS TO THE FLOOR

Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee said recently that approval of the fiscal 2015 defense spending bill by his committee was the earliest since 1974.  That’s good news.  In fact, as this goes to press, the bill is headed to the House floor for debate and passage.  That’s even better news.

The $570.4 billion defense spending bill stays within the cap for discretionary spending mandated by the Bipartisan Budget Act passed in Dec. 2013.  Included in the $570.4 billion is $70.4 billion slated for Overseas Contingency Operations; however, details of that request are not expected until later this month.

Much of the committee’s actions align closely with the House-passed Defense authorization bill and would appropriate:

• $31.6 billion for defense health programs.  The committee essentially rejected all of the Administration’s proposals to increase/create fees for the TRICARE healthcare program; consolidate the three major plans within the TRICARE program; and increase pharmacy fees.  In fact, the committee would add $125 million in unrequested funds for Traumatic Brain Injury and psychological health research and development. 

• $2.6 billion for Defense Department Dependent Schools and $40 million in unrequested funds for impact aid, a program administered by the Education Department to provide supplementary funds to school districts nationwide in order to support the education of nearly 600,000 children of servicemembers.. 

• $100 million in unrequested funds for the commissary system to maintain current operations for 2015.  The committee’s report states that it supports the defense commissary system and the benefits it yields to servicemembers worldwide.  It also notes that DoD historically has subsidized the secondary transportation costs for commissary goods shipped overseas and currently plans to re-compete the contracts for delivery of fresh fruits and vegetables and will require that proposed prices for goods include secondary transportation costs, thereby passing the costs for these goods on to commissary customers.  The committee directed the Secretary of Defense to report on the proposed change and directed that the current policies and procedures associated with the shipping for commissaries cannot be modified until the report is delivered and Congress has 30 days to review and approve the proposed changes included in the report.

• $475 million for tuition assistance

• $534 million in additional funding for an across-the-board 1.8% pay increase for military personnel in FY 2015, a 0.8-percentage-point increase over the president's request.

• $164.6 billion in non-war funding to operate and maintain U.S. forces and for the maintenance of materials and facilities worldwide in FY 2015, $1.3 billion less than requested.

• $1 billion in added funds for the operation and maintenance accounts for the active services, the National Guard and the reserve components, to be used only for improving military readiness.  The funding is to be used only to improve readiness, including increased training, depot maintenance, and base operations support. None of the funding provided may be used for recruiting, marketing or advertising programs.

• An additional $39 million above the request for suicide prevention outreach programs, including the Yellow Ribbon program that helps guardsmen and reservists transition to civilian life upon returning from deployment.

The measure would set end strength for the Army at 490,000 which is 30,000 less than the fiscal 2014 level.

The committee responded to the Army’s proposed Aviation Restructure Initiative with mixed results.  The plan would have retired some of the older helicopters while shifting Apache helicopters from the Army National Guard to the active force.  In turn, the Guard would receive Blackhawk and M utility helicopters.  The committee largely agreed with the plan except for the transfer of the Apaches from the Guard.  Instead the committee directed the Defense Secretary to submit a report to Congress within 120 days of enactment outlining the number of aircraft being retired, the number of airframes being transferred to other government agencies, the number of airframes being offered for sale to other nations, the cost of divesting these aircraft and the impact the divestiture of these airframes will have on the domestic rotary-wing industrial base.  The Army is prohibited from divesting any aircraft until the report is submitted.

The measure appropriates $1.3 billion for 87 multiuse Black Hawks for the Army and Guard, $119 million more than the president's request.  The added funds are for eight additional UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters to address Army National Guard modernization shortfalls.

What’s next:  As already stated, floor action on the House bill begins this week with numerous amendments up for debate.  Over on the Senate side, the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee is holding a hearing on their bill this week.  Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will testify.  No markup schedule has been set yet, but Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski has said that she wants all spending bills to be passed by August. Once the House and Senate bills are passed, a conference committee will be scheduled to iron out any differences. 

The Association remains hopeful that the House and Senate is actually returning to regular order with regards to the appropriations/authorization process.  AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA Ret., has stated repeatedly in testimony, letters, and speeches that running the Army under continuing resolutions is bad for business. 

AUSA ON THE HILL

AUSA’s Vice President Lt. Gen. Jerry Sinn and Government Affairs Director Bill Loper, along with other representatives from Veteran and Military Service organizations, attended a roundtable meeting hosted by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., last week. The event afforded AUSA the opportunity to discuss issues important to the Association and its members with Leader Pelosi and eleven other top Democratic lawmakers.

Lt. Gen. Sinn expressed AUSA’s desire for bipartisan action on legislation pertaining to veteran’s access–to–service.  He also provided insight into sources of VA funding, noting the presence of unobligated funds from previous years.  In addition, Sinn expressed AUSA’s commitment to urge Congress to return to regular order in the appropriations process so that all funding is completed before the expiration of the fiscal year on 30 September.  Finally, Sinn restated before the dozen House lawmakers, AUSA’s belief that sequestration cuts affecting the Department of Defense be ended permanently as a matter of national security.

The group will meet again next month to further discuss potential solutions to the ongoing VA healthcare crisis.

To reiterate the Association’s message on the importance of regular order, AUSA President Gen. Gordon Sullivan, USA, Ret., sent the roundtable attendees a follow-on letter.  Sullivan said, “Our association’s focus centers on national defense and for our military leaders to properly execute their national security mission, they need authorization authority and appropriations to be completed on time and with regular order.  Operating under a series of continuing resolutions and sequestration limits their capability to properly plan and execute a budget.”

STICKER SHOCK ON VA LEGISLATION

The House and Senate swiftly passed legislation last week in response to the scandal that has consumed the Veterans’ Administration where thousands of veterans have endured long wait-times that were covered up to make internal figures look better.  It has been reported that some veterans died while waiting for treatment.  The measures are now headed to conference committee to hammer out a final version.

The Senate’s bill would allow veterans to go to civilian doctors for the next two years if they live more than 40 miles away from a treatment center or if they have been waiting for more than a month for a doctor’s appointment.

Among other things, the Senate bill also gives the VA 60 days to create disciplinary procedures for workers who knowingly falsify wait-time data, lets the agency more quickly fill medical jobs with the greatest shortages and lets the VA enter into leases for 26 major medical facilities in 17 states and Puerto Rico.

The House passed a similar bill.  Like the Senate version, the House would require the VA to pay for outside medical care for service members who have been unable to see a doctor or who live 40 miles away from a VA-affiliated facility.  It also makes it easier for the VA to fire or demote agency officials. 

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that preliminary costs for just one provision of the bill -- which gives the VA authority to contract with private health care providers to ensure veterans get care -- would exceed more than $35 billion through 2016.  The CBO also estimates that the provision could ultimately cost $50 billion per year.

In response, The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) has sounded an alarm over the potential cost of the bill, releasing a statement saying the Senate version of the bill “violates every principle of good budgeting, and could add substantially to the national debt.  “If the program was permanently extended, and fully phased-in costs grew with inflation, the total cost could exceed $500 billion over the next decade before interest,” the CRFB warned.  “In fact, for the cost of making this new entitlement permanent, policymakers could fully repeal the defense sequester,” CRFB added.

The House bill, though, calls for a study of the costs, which the CRFB called more "responsible."

Earlier this week, Sen. Rob Portman, who voted for the bill, said it was a “huge mistake” that the Senate voted for a veterans aid bill only an hour after receiving a preliminary estimate of its cost.

“We’ve got to take our time and legislate correctly,” Portman added. “But we now have the opportunity to work with the House because the two bills are quite different in some respects and come up with a more fiscally responsible alternative.”