Pay & Benefits

Congress isn't finished with the California Guard bonuses scandal

The Pentagon has its fix for the California National Guard bonuses controversy, but that won't stop members of Congress from weighing in with their own solutions when they return to Capitol Hill next month.

On Wednesday, defense officials announced they will suspend efforts to recoup questionable enlistment bonuses from roughly 10,000 guardsmen after a public outcry over the practice.

That came after a series of Los Angeles Times articles showed the practice was causing financial harm to combat veterans who received the hefty payouts a decade ago, only to have Guard officials ask for the money back now with threats of paycheck deductions and tax liens.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter ordered a review of the recoupment procedures, to ensure that individuals who didn't engage in fraud or wrongdoing aren't being punished. That review is scheduled to be finished next summer.

But lawmakers don't plan on waiting that long for a more permanent resolution. Several have criticized Guard and Defense Department leadership for their handling of the issue, and criticized military officials for giving them too little information on the scope of the problems following a fraud investigation into the matter in 2013. 

Shortly after the Pentagon announcement, leaders of the House Armed Services Committee said they expect to include legislation on the matter in the fiscal 2017 defense authorization bill, expected to pass in the upcoming lame duck session.

"Service members and families who received bonuses in good faith deserve to know they will be made whole, that the problem will be solved, and that those responsible will be held accountable," committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and ranking member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said in a joint statement.

"Congress must act to give them the peace of mind they have earned."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., offered similar promises to "work together with the Department of Defense and my colleagues in the Senate to explore all options available to hold those responsible for this unacceptable situation accountable and to ensure this never happens again."

The annual defense policy measure is the most likely vehicle for any congressional action on the issue, but a number of other lawmakers have promised to offer their own stand-alone bills as well.

California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, said they plan to offer a bill "to hold the Pentagon to its commitments" when the Senate returns to Capitol Hill on Nov. 14.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., has demanded an apology for the veterans affected by the moves and "return their money." He also wants to see a permanent end to any attempt to recoup the bonuses, which would require congressional action.

Smith and acting House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Ranking Member Mark Takano, D-Calif., collected more than 100 lawmaker signatures for a letter to House leadership petitioning them to "work with the Department to find a permanent solution to end unfair bonus recoupments and make service members whole."

And dozens of lawmakers are promising closer oversight and more questioning of defense officials over the scandal. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has already requested more information on the payouts and decisions to pull them back, and is promising a full investigation.

"It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the (defense) secretary is taking this action through existing authority," said Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., in a statement Wednesday. "That same authority could have been exercised at any point since the size and scope of the situation was realized."

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com .

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