Action in Congress

Oct. 1, 2004

Postponing the Defense Bill

In the 2005 defense authorization bill, important military personnel initiatives are at stake, but some predict that a House-Senate conference will not finish ironing out their differences until after the November elections. The biggest obstacle, say Congressional sources, is reaching agreement on the base closure issue.

In its version of the defense bill, the House passed an initiative to delay until 2007 the next round of base realignment and closure (BRAC) action, set to begin next spring. The Senate turned down a similar proposal, but the vote on the measure was close.

Influential lawmakers from states and districts with at-risk bases are expected to fight hard during conference negotiations for the two-year delay. However, President Bush has threatened to veto any defense bill that changes the current BRAC schedule.

The conventional thinking in Congress, said a House staff member, is that conferees will put off a final deal until after the Nov. 2 election, when lawmakers have less to lose politically.

Proponents of delay gained ground in mid-August when President Bush announced Pentagon plans to withdraw up to 70,000 US troops from Western Europe and South Korea over the next 10 years. (See “Aerospace World: Bush Outlines Overseas Basing Restructure,” p. 17.) Anti-BRAC forces say the plan raises fresh questions. One concerns whether troop reallocation to Stateside bases should precede any domestic base closure action.

After the President announced the overseas troop reduction, Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.), ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, immediately asked Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) to hold hearings this fall on the troop shift.

Initiatives Left Hanging

Key personnel initiatives that conferees must reconcile include:

  • Force Strength. The House would direct DOD to increase the Army’s active duty strength by 30,000 soldiers over a three-year period and the Marine Corps by 9,000. The Senate would mandate a 20,000 increase in soldiers and no increase for the Marines.
  • SBP Reform. Both the House and Senate have agreed to phase out a sharp drop in Survivor Benefit Plan payments that occurs at age 62 for most beneficiaries. (See “Action in Congress: SBP Reform Alternatives,” September, p. 31.) However, conferees must decide on the length of the phase-out period. Moreover, they have to determine whether to allow retirees who declined coverage to sign up for SBP without facing a significant late-enrollment penalty.

    The House voted to phase out the offset by April 2008 and would set only a modest penalty on premiums for retirees who elect to enroll in the improved SBP program. The Senate bill calls for a 10-year phaseout of the offset and open enrollment only for retirees willing to pay all missed premiums since their retirement, plus interest.

  • Accelerated Concurrent Receipt. The Senate bill would restore on Jan. 1, 2005, full concurrent receipt of both retired pay and disability compensation to 30,000 retirees rated 100 percent disabled. The House bill contains no such provision, leaving in place the 10-year phase in of concurrent retirement and disability payment that is scheduled for all retirees with disabilities of 50 percent or more.
  • Reserve Health Care. The Senate bill would open Tricare to all drilling reservists and their families. To use Tricare, they would pay premiums equal to 28 percent of program costs, roughly $530 a year for individuals or $1,860 for family coverage. Those who opt to keep employer-provided health insurance would get help from the government in paying their premiums during periods of mobilization.

    The House bill calls for a three-year test that would offer Tricare only to drilling reservists who lack employer-provided health care.

  • Income Replacement. The House bill would provide National Guardsmen and Reservists who are mobilized involuntarily extra pay to replace lost income resulting from their call to service. The extra pay, ranging from $50 to $3,000 a month, would start after reserve component members had served 12 continuous months on active duty or 18 months’ active duty over five years.

    Raising Reserve GI Bill

    President Bush on Aug. 18 said he would ask Congress to increase educational benefits for mobilized Guardsmen and Reservists who, since Sept. 11, 2001, have served continuously on active duty for longer than 90 days.

    The current Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) educational benefit rate—$282 per month—for reservists was set before lawmakers envisioned reserve component personnel routinely serving long involuntary tours on active duty. Bush would increase the monthly benefit, making it $402 to $803 a month, depending upon the length of continuous active duty service.

    Active duty members contribute $100 a month during their first year in service to qualify for MGIB benefits of $800 per month for two years served or $985 a month for three or more years served. When reservists are mobilized, they are not expected to pay the $1,200 contribution to gain MGIB benefits, but reserve benefits also have been significantly lower. Active duty benefits have been raised in recent years.

    The White House expects the expanded benefits to be paid for with existing funds. Many Democrats are skeptical and have asked for more details. Pentagon officials have been opposed to previous increases in entitlements for either reserve or active duty members, if they could not show a link to readiness.

    DIC Deadline

    The open-season deadline is approaching for certain surviving spouses of deceased veterans to restore entitlement to Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) benefits and related home loan and education benefits. The Department of Veterans Affairs has said some spouses may be left out.

    DIC is payable to surviving spouses of veterans who die while on active duty or from service-related causes. Payments typically stop when a surviving spouse remarries. However, last December, Congress changed the law to allow surviving spouses who remarry on or after attaining age 57 to keep their DIC. If they earlier lost DIC, they can apply for reinstatement.

    They must do so no later than Dec. 16.

    VA officials don’t know what surviving spouses are in these groups, and remain concerned that some eligibles will not get the word in time to restore their benefits.

    For more information on restoration of DIC, call VA’s toll-free number at 1-800-827-1000, or visit the nearest VA regional office, or go to the VA Web site:

    Up In Smoke

    The Government Accountability Office told lawmakers earlier this summer that it has little confidence in the computer modeling program used to estimate exposure of Gulf War I veterans to plumes of deadly chemical weapons.

    The plume models used by DOD and the CIA, said GAO, are faulty and should not be used either to link veterans to illnesses or to dismiss claims of exposure during the 1991 Gulf War. Assumptions made regarding quantity and purity of the chemical agents released were uncertain and incomplete, and thus must be deemed inaccurate, according to GAO. For one thing, said the Congressional watchdog agency, plume heights and the size of hazard areas were underestimated.

    DOD countered that, although modeling the possible chemical releases during Gulf War I was “extremely difficult” because of a scarcity of measured data, “the use of state-of-the-art, validated computer modeling techniques is the most feasible option to determine what might have happened.” Defense officials maintain that the existence of uncertainty does not mean the model is flawed.

    In 2000, based on the computer models, officials estimated that more than 100,000 of 700,000 US service members who served in Operation Desert Storm were exposed to chemical warfare agents released during bombings of Iraqi weapon storage sites. Troops under the paths of the plume model were classified as exposed, while those not under the paths were characterized as not exposed.

    GAO recommended that DOD and the VA stop using plume modeling to support epidemiological studies from the 1991 Gulf War. However, it backed off saying they should not use such models in the future.