30 April 2015 Legislative News Update
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DEFENSE PANEL APPROVES POLICY BILL Who said Congress never works? Around 4:30 this morning, after almost 19 hours of debate, the House Armed Services Committee passed their version of the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill by a vote of 60-2.
The bill would authorize $515 billion in national defense funding, $495.9 for the Pentagon's base budget and $19 billion for national security programs within the Energy Department.
It would also provide $89.2 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), some $38.3 billion above the president's request. The added funds, authorized for operations and maintenance within the DoD’s base budget, were used to sidestep spending caps mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were critical of the maneuver. Thornberry acknowledged the criticism and noted that while "it is certainly not the ideal way to budget,” the maneuver helped the committee meet the president's total budget request.
His counterpart, Adam Smith, D-Wash., called the OCO buildup "a little dodge," but cautioned that a debate on caps was not going away. "Anyone who thinks that ... the Budget Control Act is something we no longer have to worry about on the Armed Services Committee, there are still many rounds left to go in that fight," Smith said.
Some of the added money goes to help the Army, directly and indirectly. There is $136.8 million for additional Army Guard aircraft, $110 million for enhancement in Apache helicopter survivability, $55 million to restore funding for active-duty Army flying hours and $43.9 million to restore flying hours for the Army Guard.
An indirect assist for the Army is $682.7 million for the maintenance and operation of the A-10 Thunderbolt, a close air support aircraft beloved by ground troops that the Air Force wants to retire.
There had been talk of allocation of some of the $38.3 billion is additional funds to slow or even halt the Army’s drawdown, but that did not materialize. However, there is an effort underway in the Senate Armed Services Committee to hold the active-duty Army at the 490,000 soldiers authorized for 2015.
The House version of the defense policy bill accepts the Obama administration plan to cut 15,000 active-duty soldiers in fiscal year 2016 while also cutting 8,200 soldiers from the Army National Guard and 4,000 soldiers from the Army Reserve. Those changes were endorsed last week by the military personnel subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, despite reservations by some members about the wisdom of continuing to cut the Army below the currently authorized 490,000 active, 350,200 Army Guard and 202,000 Army Reserve levels.
The Army is the only service taking big cuts personnel cuts in 2016. The Marine Corps loses 100 active-duty and 300 Marine Reserve members under the Obama administration plan. The Navy gains 5,600 active-duty sailors and 100 reservists. The Air Force is slated for a 7,735 increase in active-duty strength—3,715 directed by the House panel—in addition to gaining 500 people in the Air Guard and 2,100 in the Air Force Reserve.
One of the most notable items adopted by the committee is a provision that would overhaul the military retirement system to blend the current all-or-nothing annuity benefit with a matching Thrift Savings Plan, making it more reflective of a civilian 401(k) plan and offering financial benefits to individuals who do not serve at least 20 years in uniform.
A summary sheet released by the committee states that “this plan would allow the 83 percent of servicemembers not eligible for military retirement to participate in a retirement plan within the confines of the system. This system will allow new service members to contribute to a portable Thrift Savings Plan with matching contributions from DoD. The reform also preserves a structure that encourages service beyond 12 or 20 years. Those currently serving have the option of remaining grandfathered into the old system or choosing the new TSP option.” The retirement modifications would be effective for individuals who join the military on or after Oct. 1, 2017.
Lawmakers rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., that would have replaced the retirement system overhaul with one that would have ordered the Pentagon to assess the modification further and report to Congress. Gibson argued that more education among military service members was needed before making the historic change. We agree.
As expected, lawmakers also rejected another round of Base Realignment and Closure. Rep. Smith offered and then withdrew an amendment that would have authorized another BRAC round in 2017, as requested by the Pentagon. Smith will push for a floor vote on the language, which would establish a nine-member independent commission to review the Pentagon’s base-closure recommendations.
Thornberry opposes new base closures on the grounds that facilities can easily be closed but not so easily reopened. “Before we go down the BRAC road, I’d like to have a better understand of where we are with our infrastructure,” Thornberry said.
The panel also rejected Pentagon proposals to limit military pay and housing allowances, cut government support for commissaries and increase out-of-pocket cost for health care. These are huge wins for AUSA. Now we will turn our focus to the Senate.
What’s next: The bill will go to the floor for a vote by the full House.