WASHINGTON — The $1.3 trillion price tag on the recently passed omnibus budget bill drew most of the headlines last week, but a handful of smaller provisions tucked into the 2,232-page measure will also have impact on the military and Department of Veterans Affairs.
While not as policy-laden as the annual defense authorization bill, the final budget measure — which funds the government through September 2018 — includes plans for more Defense Department oversight and VA pilot programs. Here’s a look at a few of the more significant initiatives:
♦ No using government credit cards at strip clubs
Following numerous investigations into improper use of official government credit cards for unofficial, unprofessional purchases, lawmakers included language in the bill clearly stating that servicemembers and defense civilian workers cannot use federal accounts “for gaming, or for entertainment that includes topless or nude entertainers or participants.”
The language mirrors existing Defense Department rules on proper use of government cards and taxpayer money, so the actual effect of the measure is limited. But the language underscores a crackdown by lawmakers and the executive branch on waste and fraud within the Pentagon, even after a big boost in the military’s budget.
A 2015 report from the Defense Department inspector general found more than $1 million in casino and strip club charges on federal credit accounts in just one 12-month period.
♦ More oversight on UCMJ violations and guns
Congress is mandating new reports from defense officials to ensure they are properly reporting dangerous former military members to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System so they are blocked from owning firearms in their civilian lives.
The move stems from the mass shooting at a Texas church last November. A former airman killed 26 people in the attack, and military officials later noted they had failed to alert outside authorities of an earlier court-martial conviction for domestic violence that would have prevented him from buying a gun.
Pentagon officials will have until early fall to provide a more detailed accounting of the process and the number of former servicemembers who fall into that category of potentially dangerous individuals. Lawmakers have also promised continued oversight on the issue in years to come.
♦ New limits on canine testing at VA
Veterans Affairs officials earlier this month announced strict limits on new canine medical testing, with an eye toward getting out of the practice entirely. The new omnibus budget bill makes that easier by codifying and extending those restrictions.
The budget bill requires that any such testing have the approval of the VA secretary before moving ahead, and that the secretary’s OK be contingent upon proving that “the scientific objectives of the study can only be met by research with canines.” It also requires a report in six months on testing protocols and alternatives.
In a statement, Justin Goodman, vice president of advocacy at the White Coat Waste Project, said the language represents “bold action toward ending wasteful government spending on taxpayer-funded canine abuse” and said he believes it will lead to defunding nearly all existing testing on dogs by VA.
♦ No BRAC or GITMO changes
President Donald Trump has fiercely opposed the previous administration’s plans to close the detention facilities at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and in the fiscal 2019 budget proposal dropped plans for a new base-closing round to save money.
Despite neither of those issues posing a looming threat, lawmakers included prohibitions against both ideas in the omnibus budget. None of the money can be used to transfer terrorists from Cuba to the United States for permanent detention, and none of the money can be used for another base-closing commission.
The precautionary language is a holdover from past year’s budgets, and likely doesn’t reflect any paranoia from lawmakers about dramatic policy changes on the issues by the president.
♦ More vets as VA medical workers?
A new pilot program tucked into the omnibus would provide education assistance and other specialized training for former military medical personnel to become physician assistants at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Details of the five-year program still have to be worked out, but it comes at a time when VA staffing has come under significant scrutiny on Capitol Hill. More than 30,000 positions nationwide are vacant at department facilities, and VA leaders have said that recruiting qualified medical personnel has proven difficult, especially in rural areas.
The program will target veterans who served in health care and medical roles in the ranks or received similar schooling after leaving the military, providing help in finishing their civilian training in exchange for taking VA jobs afterwards.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.