23 April 2015 Legislative News Update
weekly electronic newsletter, and is published
every Thursday when Congress is in session.
AUSA TO CONGRESS: DO NOT RUSH TO OVERHAUL MILITARY 20-YEAR RETIREMENT A House panel has rejected, at least temporarily, Pentagon proposals to limit military pay and housing allowances, cut government support for commissaries and increase out-of-pocket cost for health care.
The action by the military personnel subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee on the 2016 National Defense Authorization Bill follows advice offered by the Association of the U.S. Army to avoid cuts in personnel funds that could be seen as an erosion of benefits.
However, the bill does include an overhaul of the military retirement system that concerns AUSA. The change, which would not take effect before Oct. 1, 2017, would reduce the value of retired pay for future service members but expand participation in the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan so those leaving the military with federal than 20 years of service would have some retirement savings.
“We are pleased, Congress has listened to our concerns about taking action perceived by soldiers and their families as cutting compensation. Now is not the time to do this,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Guy Swan, AUSA’s vice president for education. “We are worried about changing the current 20-year retirement system. This is not a change that should be rushed because of the potentially significant harm it could do in having an experienced career force in the future.”
AUSA is worried that Congress may have only delayed but not rejected some of the changes, Swan said.
--Pay raise - The bill does not include a Pentagon request to cap the 2016 military raise at 1.3 percent, an omission that indirectly allows a 2.3 percent increase in basic pay and drill pay effective Jan. 1, 2016, because that is an amount called for under a statutory pay format in permanent law. However, not having a specific percentage raise in the bill leaves open the possibility that a presidential order could still cap the raise, which is what has happened for the last two years.
--Commissaries – A Pentagon proposal to cut $300 million in taxpayer support for commissaries, a move that could have reduced the hours of operations, was rejected by the panel, but only so there was time to complete congressionally-ordered studies about consolidating military commissaries and exchanges.
--Housing allowance – The panel did not approve a Pentagon plan that would increase out-of-pocket expenses for those living off base by capping growth in housing allowances, saying the idea needs more study.
--Tricare fees – Hikes in Tricare fees requested by the Pentagon that could have affected military families and retirees are not included but health care reform remains on the minds of lawmakers. Fee changes are being delayed until a unified medical command is established and until there is a report on the possible realignment of military medical treatment areas. A pilot program for a preferred retail pharmacy network is authorized in the bill, an idea that might cut prescription drug costs without raising copays. The two-year test would begin on May 1, 2016, but implementation plans and zones would be determined by the Defense Department.
What’s next: The full House Armed Services Committee will mark up the legislation next week.
NEW BRAC REJECTED BY HOUSE PANEL Despite calls from the Army’s top installation officer, a House subcommittee has rejected, again, a Defense Department appeal for another round of base closing and it also put off the shedding of excess property and facilities until two more force structure studies are completed.
“We are on record as saying we need a BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure],” Lt. Gen. David Halverson, the commander of U.S. Army Installation Management Command and assistant chief of staff for installation management, said at an AUSA Institute of Land Warfare breakfast this week.
At the very least, a quantitative analysis of Army installations is called for, Halverson said. “Let the numbers speak for themselves, so we can get the emotions out of it.”
Halverson said the Army currently has an 18 percent excess in infrastructure, and the number will continue to grow as the Army gets smaller. That excess “translates into a half a billion dollars a year” in unnecessary spending for the Army, Halverson said.
Halverson’s pleas fell on deaf ears. The readiness subcommittee plan of the House Armed Services Committee wants the Defense Department to prepare a comprehensive inventory of worldwide infrastructure and to take a look at the 20-year force structure plan of each of the services, comparing the two to determine if there really is an excess of facilities and installations.
The services would be expected to err on the side of keeping excess infrastructure. In making infrastructure recommendations, lawmakers require the services to consider how much room is needed for contingencies, mobilization and surge capacity on top of providing space for existing force structure.
In addition to the Defense Department report, the panel asks the Comptroller General of the United States to do its own evaluation of force structure plans and infrastructure inventory, after the Pentagon provides its report early next year.
Army leaders have pleaded with Congress to permit a 2017 round of base closings and to permit the Army to stop wasting money on excess property. Congress and communities that might be hurt by the closing of bases or reduction in infrastructure have been unpersuaded.
Testifying in March before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Army Secretary John M. McHugh said he understood opposition to base closings from lawmakers and communities. “I went through three BRACs when I was a member of the House,” he said, referring to the base closing and realignment commission process. “I know how hard they are. I lost a base. It was one of the more painful things I have had to deal with in many, many years.”
Base closing helps more communities than it hurts, he said. “Right now we are paying about $500 million a year, roughly, just to maintain empty infrastructure, unused infrastructure,” money that could spent on other things at other bases.