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House bill protects benefits, resists new BRAC

May. 14, 2014 - 09:56AM   |  
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During the annual defense authorization bill debate May 7, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said his goal was to “hold on to as much stuff as we can” and hope for funding fixes down the road.

By the end of the evening, lawmakers had their arms full.

The $600 billion authorization bill passed unanimously by the committee protects housing allowances and commissary benefits, keeps the A-10 Thunderbolt in the active inventory, maintains 11 aircraft carriers afloat and opposes any efforts to close more military bases.

All those moves went against Pentagon budget planners looking at future defense spending restrictions. Just a day earlier, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel implored lawmakers not to tear apart the spending plan to protect parochial interests, saying the changes could cost billions down the road and jeopardize force readiness.

But members of both political parties rejected that idea in their mark-up plans, citing concerns about short-term national security threats and the hollowing of the fighting force through hundreds of small cuts.

McKeon also held out hope that Congress will move within the next year to fully repeal sequestration cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act. A December budget deal by lawmakers restored about $63 billion in planned defense spending over two years, but long-term Pentagon funding will be reduced by tens of billions in years to come unless sequestration is repealed.

“It’s bad this year. Next year it will be a catastrophe,” McKeon said. “But I’m hoping we can just hold enough, so that when realization hits, we get rid of sequestration.”

Lawmakers have been promising a full sequestration repeal for almost three years, with little success. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the committee’s ranking Democrat, repeatedly chastised his colleagues for once again putting off difficult military spending decisions.

“We just rob another fund and we wait,” Smith said. “And the bow wave builds.”

Personnel wins

Troops’ wallets would benefit from those delayed decisions in the committee plan. The draft authorization bill puts off cuts in monthly housing allowance rates and rejects plans to slash commissary operating funds that would likely drive up prices for shoppers.

Lawmakers also rejected plans to overhaul Tricare and increase fees for non-active-duty users, again citing an unfair burden for military families.

And committee members voiced support for a 1.8 percent basic pay raise next January, which would keep pace with private-sector wage growth. However, the draft bill does not include specific language ensuring that level of pay, giving the White House an easy path to reduce the raise to the Pentagon’s preferred 1 percent level.

The bill would go along with Defense Department plans to trim active-duty end strength. That would shrink the Army by 30,000 soldiers to a total of about 490,000; the Marine Corps by 6,100 Marines to around 184,000; and the Air Force down 16,700 airmen to around 311,000.

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., reiterated concerns that current long-term drawdown plans will cripple force readiness, but said lawmakers will fight that battle later.

Sexual assault reforms

The House committee rejected efforts by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., to remove sexual assault cases from the military chain of command and create a separate, independent judicial structure for handling those cases, instead opting for a slate of lesser reforms.

The Senate failed to approve a similar proposal earlier this year, despite support from a majority of the chamber. The House panel rejected the idea by a wide margin, citing concerns about the potential upheaval to the military justice system.

But the House bill includes new limits on the “good soldier defense” for offenders, prohibiting past good behavior from being used as evidence in defense of an alleged crime.

It also calls for a protection to ensure troops who report sex crimes are not subject to retaliation, and consultation with victims on whether cases should be handled by military or civilian courts.

Path ahead

The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to draft its version of the annual authorization bill later this month. Members of the committee have offered similar concerns about the pay-and-benefit trims proposed by the Pentagon, but also have voiced concerns similar to Smith’s about putting off critical decisions.

The House is expected to bring its version of the bill to the floor later this month. Critics have already promised a host of amendments on the measure, including calls for another round of base closings and changes to new restrictions that Republicans placed on any potential nuclear deal with Iran. House leaders have not weighed in on whether those debates will be allowed to go forward.

Both Senate and House leaders have vowed to pass the authorization bill before the fall elections, which would mark one of the earliest completions of the bill in the past few decades.

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