Part of the extra House base spending included a more generous 2.1 percent military pay raise, equal to the expected rise in civilian wages in 2017. The 1.6 percent pay raise backed by senators matches the White House’s request for 2017 and translates into $30 to $60 more a month for most enlisted personnel, and $60 to $120 for most officers. It would be the highest wage hike for troops since 2013, but would continue a six-year streak of military pay increases below 2 percent. Reconciling the two different figures will require bridging a $330 million gap in spending for next year alone, and billions more in ensuing years.
Lawmakers will also have to reconcile differences in the health care reform plans, where the reform philosophies intersect but the details vary greatly. For example, the House plan would include reorganizing multiple Tricare programs into two options: the existing Tricare Prime program and Tricare Preferred, a new network care option similar to Tricare Standard and Extra. The Senate plan calls for three new Tricare health plans: Tricare Prime, Tricare Choice and Tricare Supplemental, with different fee structures and parameters than the House proposal. Both chambers want a more efficient and integrated military hospital system, but the Senate plan calls for a reorganization of internal management plans and individual site improvements. The House plan calls for reassigning all military medical facilities under the Defense Health Agency, with significant operational and priority changes.
One similarity in the two plans for now is the inclusion of women in the Selective Service System. Both chamber’s plans also call for a review of the system’s functions and responsibilities, with a possible eye towards elimination in the future. But even that point of agreement could change. The full House is expected to debate its version of the budget policy language next week, and several lawmakers have said they’ll move to strike the draft requirement for women from the legislation. No timetable has been set for when the full Senate will debate its draft of the bill. Lawmakers from both chambers are hopeful a compromise measure can be finalized by early fall, but the limited legislative schedule during an election year makes that goal difficult. The authorization bill has been ultimately approved by Congress for 54 consecutive years, making it one of few bipartisan highlights each year for an increasingly partisan Congress. [Source: Military Times | Leo Shane | May 12, 2016 ++]
NDAA 2017 Update 06 ► House Removes Woman Draft Provisions Women may not have to register for the draft after all, if House Republicans get their way. Republican members of the House Rules Committee during a late 16 MAY meeting stripped provisions from the annual defense authorization bill that would have required women to register for the Selective Service System. The controversial provision narrowly passed the House Armed Services Committee last month, and was expected to be a major point of debate on the defense policy bill this week. But Rules Committee members instead voted to cut off consideration of the issue on the House floor and strike that entire section of the bill. The unusual but not unprecedented procedural move avoids what could be a thorny debate for both parties over women’s rights and roles in the military.
Democrats decried it as cowardice by Republican leaders. “This is a dead-of-night attempt to take an important issue off the table, and I think people will probably see through this tactic,” said House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-WA). The idea to make women register for the draft was introduced last month by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) as part of an effort to highlight problems with the Pentagon’s decision to open all combat roles to women earlier this year. He voted against the idea, but it passed anyway. Since then, conservative Republicans have scrambled to find ways to remove the provision from the annual military budget policy measure.
Under current law, men ages 18 to 26 are required to register for possible involuntary military service with the Selective Service System. Women have been exempt, and past legal challenges have pointed to combat restrictions placed on their military service as a reason for their exclusion. Since the Defense Department announced a change in those rules, a collection of military leaders and women’s rights advocates have said they support requiring women to now register for the draft. The conversation is largely a theoretical one, since military leaders have repeatedly insisted they have no desire to return to the draft to fill the ranks. No Americans have been pressed into involuntary military service since the last draft ended in 1973. And watchdog groups have repeatedly questioned whether the Selective Service System could even adequately conduct a draft if one was needed. Several lawmakers, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, have called for a study into whether the system and its $23 million annual budget are still needed. But the Rules Committee move stripped out that study language from the authorization bill draft as well, leaving the entire issue on the sidelines.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has included provisions making women register for the draft in its initial versions of the authorization bill, meaning the issue will likely come up again before a final compromise bill is settled. But that work will happen behind closed doors, not in public debate before Congress. Also on Monday, the Rules Committee accepted 61 other amendments for floor debate this week on the authorization bill. Dozens more are expected to be added to the debate list before a final vote on the full measure occurs later this week. President Obama has threatened to veto the House draft of the authorization bill, over funding issues and restrictions on transferring prisoners out of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, Cuba. [Source: Military Times | Leo Shane | May 17, 2016 ++]
NDAA 2017 Update 07 ► House Bill IncludesTemporary War Funding House appropriators advanced their $575.7 billion defense spending plan for fiscal 2017 just hours after the White House threatened to veto a similar budget bill and accused lawmakers of “gambling with warfighting funds.” The spending plan stays under totals set in a congressional budget agreement last fall but does so by reassigning about $16 billion in temporary war funds to the defense base budget. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) told members of the House Appropriations Committee that it’s the only way to meet military needs within the parameters of existing spending caps. “We are concerned with what we see in the military today,” he said. But Democrats have railed against that plan as a budgeting gimmick, noting that it leaves overseas military operations without any funding past April of next year. Republicans said they’ll push the next president to cover that shortfall.
The funding plan is the same general idea as one laid out in the House’s draft of the annual defense authorization bill, although the exact figures differ. On Tuesday, the White House issued a veto threat on that authorization legislation, calling the funding plan “dangerous” for troops and the country. “The bill risks the safety of our men and women fighting to keep America safe, undercuts stable planning and efficient use of taxpayer dollars, dispirits troops and their families, baffles our allies, and emboldens our enemies,” the administration statement said. This is the eighth consecutive year President Obama has threatened to veto annual defense budget legislation, although he only followed through on that threat last year, over similar spending maneuvers. White House officials also blasted the extra base budget spending as “excess force structure without the money to sustain it, effectively creating hollow force,” especially given more restrictive defense spending caps scheduled for coming years.
But Republican House leaders have said those increases are needed to meet current threats. In the appropriations bill, that includes a increase in personnel totaling 5,000 for the active-duty Army, 15,000 for the Army National Guard and Reserve, and 1,000 for the Marine Corps. Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee warned that those boosts and related personnel costs could total tens of billions of dollars in extra spending over the next five years, creating even more budgeting problems. The plan also includes a 2.1 percent pay raise for troops, one-half of a percentage point higher than White House recommendations for 2017 and $330 million more costly for next year alone.
So far, Senate leaders have said they do not plan to go along with the House budget proposals. The Senate Armed Services Committee has offered its own authorization bill draft without the redirected temporary war funding. Senate appropriators have not weighed in on the fight yet. Despite the veto threat, the full House is expected to adopt its draft of the annual authorization bill later this week.
Military Pay & Benefits Update 05 ► Pay Gap to Get Considerably Worse If lawmakers follow through with the least generous pay-and-benefits proposals under consideration as part of the federal government's 2017 budget process, next year could be one of the toughest in recent memory for military families’ finances. Even advocates accustomed to the political fights over service members' quality-of-life issues say they’re surprised at just how much lawmakers seem to be targeting military benefits. And they worry it won't hit troops' wallets alone, but their morale too. It's a stunning turnaround for those who provided troops and their families with generous incentives throughout much of the post-9/11 era. Since 2013, when Washington first fought to curtail defense spending -
Annual pay raises have averaged just 1.1 percent.
Retention bonuses — worth tens of thousands of dollars during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — have dropped off as combat deployments slowed and the services were forced to reprioritize their funding.
Congress passed sweeping retirement reform legislation last year, the first significant move to dial back the military's long-term personnel costs.
There are new rules requiring military families to pay more out of pocket for their housing, which can have varying impacts depending on local rental markets.
Lawmakers are zeroing in on health care. A new enrollment fee, approved by the House and awaiting action in the Senate, would require new troops to pay for access to the military medical system starting in 2018 for their families. Troops already serving would be grandfathered in, but would see higher co-pays.
Grocery discounts could start to dry up.
The new GI Bill, perhaps the most extravagant benefit afforded to military personnel today, is being reviewed with an eye toward limiting what the government previously agreed to pay for some military spouses and kids to attend college.
All of it is necessary, officials say, to help offset unsustainable costs. Yet as service members' wages lag behind those in the private sector, what's known as the military-civilian "pay gap," several small cuts add up can add up quickly. And that too comes at a cost. "The Defense Department keeps saying they'll protect readiness by asking families to pay for it, and thinking that families will suck it up and take one for the team," said Joyce Wessel Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association. "It's a spiral that's going to end up hurting families and hurting the military." Today, military and civilian pay is about on par. In the 1990s, the pay gap topped 13 percent, said Steve Strobridge, government relations director for the Military Officers Association of America. That era saw a host of changes on par with those being debated now. Housing was shifted off-base. Personnel programs were slashed. “It’s part of the long-term cycle, especially when [military members’] sacrifices fall out of the news,” he said. “But that doesn’t make it easy for the folks who have to live through it.”
Smaller pay raises Military pay raises have fallen below private sector rates for the last three years. If the Senate and the White House get their way, 2017 will follow that pattern. The Obama administration proposed a 1.6 percent bump for next year, half a percentage point below the anticipated rise in private sector wages. Senate lawmakers have advanced a budget bill that matches that plan, calling the figure disappointingly low but still enough to ensure all troops see their pay go up. But House lawmakers have advanced two separate plans calling for a 2.1 percent boost in military pay next year — “a full raise,” in their words — that costs $330 million more but better compensates service members, they say. House leaders have pushed, unsuccessfully, for bigger pay raises in each of the last three years. And big-picture funding concerns in the Senate make it unlikely to happen again this year.
If that’s the case, 2017 will be the seventh consecutive year in which military pay raises fall below 2 percent. For Army specialists with three years service, a 1.6 percent pay raise amounts to about $36 more a month in spending money. At 2.1 percent, they would receive another $11. That’s not much, but Raezer noted for many junior troops, every dollar counts. That money could cover a few lunches or a pharmacy co-pay — small but consequential items, especially if someone can’t afford them. A fourth year of lower pay raises also means the pay gap reopens. If the 1.6 percent rate becomes law, as expected, the gap will be a little more than 3 percent, according to MOAA's estimates. That means the Army specialist — any service member in the E-4 pay grade — will earn around $800 less in annual salary than her comparable civilian counterparts.
Smaller housing stipends The fate of next year’s military pay raise is still in doubt. But troops’ housing stipends are guaranteed to get trimmed. Last year, Congress approved a reduction in the annual basic housing allowance increase for the next three years, lowering from 100 to 95 percent the amount of rent this stipend covers. “That’s extremely frustrating,” Raezer said. “Here’s a benefit that works well, that helped the department deal with the lack of adequate housing for families, and now they’re dismantling that.” No family’s housing stipend will see a decrease next year, but the trims mean that troops will be paying a larger share of their rent costs for years to come. For a married E-4 with children dependents, living in the community outside Fort Bragg in North Carolina will mean picking up $35 a month in housing costs. For the same service member living outside Camp Pendleton in California, the out-of-pocket cost rises to $67 a month.
In separate veterans legislation, lawmakers have toyed with the idea of cutting the housing stipend for individuals using the post-9/11 GI Bill. A House plan would cut in half the stipend for dependents using the education benefit. A Senate plan would cap increases in every GI Bill recipient's housing payouts, similar to the active-duty housing trims. Both the shrinking pay raise and shrinking housing benefit come as the military is shifting to a new 401(k)-style retirement system, one where troops are being encouraged to save more money to help pay for their retirement. But Raezer said that’s going to be a tough sell if troops are being “nickled and dimed” in other areas of their finances.
Smaller commissary benefit Congress is moving away from the decades-old system of selling groceries at cost, with no profit. And that could mean a higher food bill for military families. Lawmakers have included major reform provisions in their pending defense policy bills that would allow commissaries to establish a “variable pricing program.” Officials would be able to set prices “in response to market conditions and customer demand,” according to the House plan. According to the Defense Commissary Agency’s calculations, the average overall savings is 30 percent, based on a comparison of thousands of items. A 5-percent surcharge is used to pay for construction and renovation of stores. So a military family who shops on base pays, on average, $70 for groceries that would cost $100 at a market in town.
The new plan would allow the commissary agency to increase some prices to help pay for operating costs, currently at $1.4 billion. The Defense Department has said it aims to save $512 million in annual taxpayer dollars by fiscal 2021. For military families, this raises an important question: Will that savings be realized by eating into the discounts now afforded to military families? “It’s a radical change in the commissary’s mission,” said Eileen Huck, deputy director of government relations for the National Military Family Association. “The role has never been to generate revenue. It’s been to provide a benefit, and this would fundamentally change the mission. “Lawmakers and defense officials have talked about the importance of the savings, but we don’t know how the new plan will play out, how it will affect the benefit,” she said. “Our fear is that it will lead to increased prices.”
Defense officials are required to develop a new savings baseline before implementing variable pricing. Future savings will be measured against that baseline. Advocates are concerned about how that baseline will be determined. Lawmakers want safeguards to protect the commissary benefit, including quarterly reports, and the ability to infuse taxpayer dollars if there are problems. That's separate from a Senate plan to privatize the commissary system. Senators want to test this concept at at least one commissary — but no more than five — on major military bases. Huck said this raises even more uncertainty. “We’re concerned that once you bring in a business or entity to run commissaries, they may raise prices, and that would reduce the benefit for military families,” she said, calling all these ideas “uncharted territory when it comes to commissaries.”
Paying for health care Both the House and the Senate are planning major overhauls to the military health system, alterations that could radically change hospital hours, patient access to doctors and troops’ quality of care. But it also could cost troops more, and for the first time require active-duty families to pay a yearly charge for their medical care. Under the House bill, everyone now serving or retired would continue to pay the current fee structure. That means no enrollment fee for the families of active-duty troops to get military medical care. However, starting in 2018, anyone who enlists or receives a commission would start paying annual fees for family access to medical care. Current targets put the price at $180 for an individual spouse or dependent and $360 for a family using the new Tricare Prime plan, or $300 for an individual and $600 for a family for a new Tricare Preferred plan.
The Senate would not charge active-duty personnel any annual enrollment fees for Tricare, but service members and families who use private care could still feel a pinch. The proposal calls for raising co-payments for private care and increasing the catastrophic cap for active-duty families to $1,500, up from $1,000. Pharmacy copayments also would increase for these family members if they don’t pick up their prescriptions at a military pharmacy or get them by mail, under the Senate plan. Staff members on both the House and Senate side said the goal is to persuade the military health system to increase access and improve quality in return for allowing the Defense Department to raise fees.
Strobridge said he believes the proposal to charge new active-duty families for health care will not survive the legislative process but the proposed and increased fees for working aged retirees likely will become law, given they appear in both versions. Higher health care costs for personnel and retirees likely won’t hurt recruiting, since most join the armed forces for reasons other than employment benefits, he said. But they could hurt future retention. “It’s not unprecedented for Congress to look at almost anything, whether it’s the pay-raise caps, the housing allowance cuts, the commissary proposals,” he said. “They changed retirement and now they are looking at changing health care and a whole host of things. I’m not sure this is the end of it.”
Why now? In part, this squeeze on military benefits is connected to long-held Pentagon worries about personnel costs eating into the overall defense budget. Another reason is the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are fading from national consciousness. Troops' advocates say the main culprit is sequestration, and spending caps that Congress approved five years ago in an effort to rein in government spending. “It turns out that setting arbitrary budget caps for 10 years may not make sense when you get to year five,” said Ray Kelley, director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ National Legislative Service. “And when you need immediate defense spending relief, you can’t get that from cancelling long-term contracts. You get it from scaling back pay and benefits.”
Lawmakers have couched many of their proposed trims by noting that they’re following recommendations from military leaders themselves, and that many of the congressional ideas don’t cut as deeply as some of the Pentagon proposals. Without absolving military leadership, advocates note that many of those decisions are being forced by Congress’ spending caps, which lawmakers have repeatedly decried and repeatedly failed to resolve. “So, instead they toy with this benefit and that benefit to make [the budget] work just for now," Kelley said. “Congress aren’t the ones being pressed by sequestration. You’ve already asked so much of so few for so long, and now you’re asking them to take less and pay a little more. That’s going to make people walk away.”
[Source: Military Times | Leo Shane III, Patricia Kime and Karen Jowers | May 23, 2016 ++]
Exchange Fraud, Waste & Abuse ► Credit Card-Bitcoin Scam Justice Department prosecutors say three specialists and a former sergeant in the District of Columbia Army National Guard schemed to purchase stolen credit card numbers with Bitcoin and use the accounts to buy goods at military exchanges, among other retailers. Spcs. Derrick Shelton and James Stewart and former Sgt. Quentin Stewart allegedly used Bitcoin, a digital currency not backed by any government, to buy the numbers from foreign websites, according to a DOJ news release. The men allegedly used encoding devices to transfer the numbers to new credit cards, then bought luxury items, electronics and other goods from exchanges and other retail outlets.
The purchases took place between July 2014 and May 2015, prosecutors say. Spc. Vincent Grant faces a separate indictment under similar allegations, starting the same month but ending in April 2015. All of the accused but Grant could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted on wire fraud and conspiracy charges; Grant's charged with conspiring to commit access device fraud and could be jailed for 7.5 years if convicted. All four also face aggravated identity theft charges, which carry a two-year minimum sentence. The men appeared in court last week, and all but Quentin Stewart were released under pre-trial supervision. The former sergeant was scheduled to appear at a detention hearing Tuesday 24 MAY Greenbelt, Maryland. [Source: Army Times | May 24, 2016 ++]