Veteran Status - Still Waiting
By CAPT Marshall Hanson, USN (Ret.)
For the third time in six years the Armed Services Committee used a legislative procedure that isn’t taught in civics classes. A Senate defense authorization bill was never completed, yet House and Senate leadership pre-conferenced creating new legislation from the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that was passed by the House in June 2013, and the marked-up Senate bill that was a product of the Senate Armed Services Committee to complete an NDAA before year’s end.
"This is the only way we can pass a bill this year," said Senator Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in a speech on the Senate floor, as he advised support for
The House passed the new legislation on a vote of 350-69 during its last week in session on Dec. 13."No" votes came from 50 Democrats and 19 Republicans. Then the Senate could only accept or reject, as any amendments would require a revote in the House, which was no longer in session. The Senate passed their bill on Dec. 19, 2013 on a vote of 84-15.
The last thing that either the House or Senate defense leadership wanted was to delay a vote into January. Never in the last 51 years had an NDAA passage been delayed until the next year, except when it was vetoed by the president. Passage before the end of the year was considered “vital.”
A letter from chairman of the joint chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, USA was sent to the conferees warning them that certain authorities would expire on Dec 31. All combat, hazardous duty pay and reenlistment bonuses would be stopped if not passed as part of an NDAA.
When the original Senate bill was debated, only two amendments were considered, and both failed to pass. The pre-conference considered 87 amendments that had been cleared by the Senate Rules committee with 79 being accepted in the new legislation. These Senate amendments had never been voted upon by the Senate, except as part of the overall bill.
The legislation authorized $534.5 billion in spending for national defense, $17.6 billion for the Department of Energy and an addition $80.7 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations. This is $7.8 billion less for war spending as U.S presence in Afghanistan winds down.
These numbers were consistent with the House passed budget, but were agreed upon prior to the release of the budget conference report that was also voted upon by the House and Senate before recessing in December. Staffers worked on Defense appropriations over the Christmas Holiday for inclusion in budget bills passed in January.
Authorized end-strength for the Reserve Forces are 354,200 for the Army National Guard; 205,000 for the Army Reserve; 105,400 for the Air Force National Guard; 70,400 for the Air Force Reserve; 59,100 for the Navy Reserve; 39,600 for the Marine Corps Reserve; and 9000 for the Coast Guard Reserve.
Bill language now requires the Department of Defense (DoD) to provide a minimum of 180 days notification before the cancellation of a Reserve Force deployment and a minimum of 120 day notification before a deployment.
Language was updated to provide contact information to include and improve Reserve Force suicide prevention programs. A review is required of the effectiveness of the DoD/Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) integrated disability evaluation system. The bill also includes a provision directing DoD to provide the Department of Veteran Affairs with an electronic copy of a member’s service record.
Additional funding is authorized for $400 billion for continued modernization of the Reserve Forces by providing additional funding in a National Guard and Reserve Component Equipment Account.
One-year extensions were authorized for certain bonuses and special pays to Reserve Forces and health care professionals.
Reservists who served in support of an overseas contingency operation will be provided a periodic review of their early retirement eligibility age, allowing members to correct faulty records earlier.
The NDAA invested in weapons systems including supporting the Navy’s authorization request for a nuclear aircraft carrier, CVN 78; multi-year procurement for the E-2D Hawkeye and C-130J Super Hercules; modernization of the C-130H aircraft for the National Guard and Reserve; support for KC-46 tanker, the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), additional funding for advance procurement of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the Marine Corps Amphibious Combat Vehicle, and additional investment in the Air Force MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial systems.
The NDAA restores vital readiness accounts to replace funds that were reprogrammed to cover unfunded combat operations. This includes restoring Army and Air Force flying hours, facilities sustainment, Army OPTEMPO, depot maintenance, ship depot maintenance, critical spares and combat support forces equipment and sustainment. It also provides for procurement to stabilize fuel rates. These steps are viewed as a stop gap and not a comprehensive solution to defense strategy, resources and roles and missions.
With passage, Congress prohibits another round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) suggesting that it would not only be costly, but a reaction to “temporary budget pressures at the expense of long term strategic assets.”
Troop pay was limited to a 1 percent increase in keeping with the White House request. This compares to a 1.5 percent increase for military retirees, veterans and social security recipients which is based on Employment Cost Index calculations that estimate inflation.
Language in the NDAA did reject all the Administration’s proposals to increase or create new TRICARE fees for military retirees. While fees will increase it is based on retiree cost of living increases.
“DoD’s record of incorrectly calculated TRICARE costs and their repeated requests to transfer billions [of dollars] in unused funds out of the [health care] program to cover other unfunded defense priorities raises questions about repeated claims by the Department of Defense that the Defense Health Program is unsustainable,” reproached House leadership in a statement about the compromise bill.
Beneficiaries who have received notice that they are no longer included in Tricare Prime Service Areas (PSAs) will be grandfathered into Tricare Prime as long as they live within 100 miles of a military treatment facility and don’t relocate outside of their original zip code. Medical beneficiaries who have other health insurance and use military facilities to save money, may have their insurance billed under a new pilot program.
Combating Sexual Assault was one of the issues that stalled out the NDAA in the Senate when two different approaches were debated on the floor without resolution when dueling amendments were submitted by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Over 30 provisions and reforms were included in the compromise NDAA. These reforms would strip commanders of their authority to dismiss a finding by a court martial, and prohibit commander from reducing guilty finding to a lesser offense. The 5-year statute of limitations was eliminated on rape and sexual assault.
The NDAA also establishes new minimum sentencing guidelines for sexual assualt, joining similar guidelines for murder and espionage. Victims will be provided special counsel, and can request for a permanent change of station or unit transfer. Members of the Reserves and National Guard will have timely access to Sexual Assault Response Coordinators.
DoD is directed to do a review of jobs within the military to see what new roles are open to women, and emphasizes a need for gender-neutral standards as a means of entrance into individual military specialties.
Using the Thanksgiving recess as a backstop, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had allowed three legislative days for NDAA debate, hoping for an expedited passage, but his efforts were derailed when Republican pushed backed.
Republicans were provoked by a move by Sen. Reid to change Senate rules, XXII, a cloture vote could only end debate with a “yea” vote by 60 Senators. The change permitted the majority party the power to elect judicial and administration nominees with just a simple majority. This frustration resulted in a slow down of the NDAA in the Senate. With passage of the NDAA, many Republicans went home, leaving Democrats to pass judicial nominations as the final business for the Senate before the holiday recess.
Such shortcuts in the legislative process, handicap advocates on Capitol Hill. Normally ROA is approached by Senate offices to support specific amendments, and later when provisions go into conference, ROA can submit positions of support or rejection to be considered in discussions. Truncating the systems, reduces advisement from outside.
One disappointment in the NDAA was the exclusion of veteran status for Reserve and National Guard members who qualified for military retirement at age 62, but haven’t had a long enough period of active duty.
Included in the original House defense bill was a provision to recognize these overlooked veterans. Under current law, only Guardsmen and Reservists who have served on federal active-duty for other than training, regardless of their total years in uniform, may call themselves a veteran. The Senate Veterans Affairs committee protested and the provision was dropped from the NDAA as not being germane.
While the House passed the Honor America's Guard-Reserve Retirees Act, H.R. 1405 in October, the Senate didn’t consider that bill. Instead, the Senate VA committee included language in S.944. that differed from that passed by the House. Nonregular service is hill-speak for reserve duty.
“SEC. 807. HONORING AS VETERANS CERTAIN PERSONS WHO PERFORMED SERVICE IN THE RESERVE COMPONENTS OF THE ARMED FORCES.
“Any person who is entitled under chapter 1223 of title 10, United States Code, to retired pay for nonregular service or, but for age, would be entitled under such chapter to retired pay for nonregular service shall be honored as a veteran but shall not be entitled to any benefit by reason of this honor.”
“Shall be honored as a veteran,” falls short of being recognized as a veteran. So ROA intends to continue to work this issue. Resistance to a better definition has come from the ranking member, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. Worst case, ROA will try to improve language once Sen. Burr leaves the VA committee.
Ironically, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., prevented S.944 from being considered in December, but not because of Sec. 807. The bill is expected to pass early in 2014. The office of Rep. Tim Walz – originator of the House bill – has suggested that when the House and Senate bills are in conference, they might have an opportunity to wordsmith the provision.