Action in Congress

Nov. 1, 2006

Retrieving “Stolen Valor”

The Senate in September passed a bill (S 1998) that would make it a crime to claim falsely, either orally or in writing, to be a recipient of a military decoration or medal.

The Stolen Valor Act, if passed by the full Congress, would make such untrue claims punishable by a fine and a sentence of from six to 12 months, depending on the award claimed.

Current law only allows for the prosecution of imposters if they actually wear an unearned medal. The Senate-passed bill would expand the law to include those who publicly claim to be decorated veterans.

Rep. John T. Salazar (D-Colo.) introduced the legislation in the House in July 2005, but it failed to advance. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) introduced an identical bill in the Senate.

Proponents argue the legislation is needed because fraudulent claims damage the “reputation and meaning” of awards such as the Medal of Honor, Air Force Cross, Purple Heart, and other decorations.

Without tougher legislation, federal law enforcement officers have “limited ability” to prosecute these types of false claims.

The Senate bill would amend the federal criminal code to prohibit unauthorized wearing, manufacture, or sale of military decorations or medals. It would ban purchasing, mailing, shipping, importing, exporting, producing blank certificates of receipt for, advertising, or exchanging such decorations or medals without legal authorization.

Brain Injury Funds Restored

Stung by criticism from veterans’ service organizations and editorial writers, Congress has added $12 million to the Fiscal 2007 defense appropriations bill for the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, headquartered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees had left the center’s next-year funding at the Administration’s request of $7 million, half of its 2006 budget. The Veterans of Foreign Wars described that move as “one of the worst possible decisions any lawmaker could make during a time of war.”

By mid-September, conferees wanted an alternative to consider in negotiating a final defense money bill. The Senate agreed to a bipartisan amendment from Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to boost the center’s budget from $7 million to $19 million in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. With November elections looming, conferees quickly accepted the budget increase.

Congress OKs 2.2 Percent Raise

The 2007 defense appropriations bill, which the President signed Sept. 29, supports a 2.2 percent across-the-board pay raise for the military in January. Otherwise it contained few initiatives directly impacting the wallets or careers of active duty military personnel.

Key VA Facility Bill Delayed

Congress delayed until after the November elections a medical facility construction bill for the Department of Veterans Affairs, which would allow renovation and expansion of the storm-damaged VA Medical Center in Biloxi, Miss.

The House passed its VA medical facility bill, HR 5815, in mid-September, but the Senate failed to vote on a companion bill, S 3421, until Sept. 26. This ensured that differences between House and Senate versions will have to be resolved by a lame-duck Congress in November.

The House-passed Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Facility Authorization Act of 2006 approves construction of several major medical facilities, including new hospitals in Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla., and expansion of the VA’s Spinal Cord Injury Center in Tampa, Fla.

Rep. Henry E. Brown (R-S.C.), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee on health, said the theme of the bill is greater collaboration between the VA, Department of Defense, and state-affiliated medical facilities in sharing of costly equipment and delivery of quality care.

A highlight of both the House and Senate bills is authorization to restore and expand the Biloxi center to become a joint-use facility that can also serve Keesler AFB, Miss. They also authorized advance planning and site preparation for another joint-use facility in or near New Orleans as well as advance planning for a joint-use facility in Charleston, S.C.

Even before Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, the VA had announced plans to consolidate its Gulfport and Biloxi medical centers at Biloxi and to strengthen coordination of care with Keesler. Both bills would accelerate repairs on the Biloxi center and campus, which sustained significant storm damage.

Insurance To Wounded Warriors

Almost 3,000 war veterans who suffered life-altering wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan have received $25,000 to $100,000 in traumatic injury protection under Traumatic Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (TSGLI) since the transition payments became available last December.

But TSGLI is not a benefit limited to wounded warriors, and that word needs to get out to all service members, program administrators told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in September.

Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), committee chairman, recalled how three injured veterans suggested a wounded warrior insurance program to him last year. (See “Action in Congress: ‘Traumatic Injury’ Rider,” July 2005, p. 28.) With the cooperation of the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, Craig said, the idea swiftly became law as a rider to the SGLI program.

Service members, particularly those in the National Guard and Reserve, might not understand yet that TSGLI is payable for traumatic injury whether suffered in war or at home and even while off duty.

It is true so far that most recipients are wounded warriors, say officials. The law makes TSGLI effective retroactively only for injuries sustained in combat areas since Oct. 7, 2001, the day US troops first entered Afghanistan.

But for injuries incurred after Nov. 30, 2005, TSGLI is a benefit offered to more than severely wounded warriors. Any service member, active or reserve, who has SGLI and suffers a traumatic injury—loss of a limb, sight, or hearing, for example—can be eligible for the pay.

A reservist who loses a limb in a car crash while commuting to his civilian job or on vacation, for example, might qualify. That is important to understand because to receive TSGLI payments, a person who suffers traumatic injury must apply to their service for the benefit.

Troops Get Financial Protection

Congress in September approved the Military Personnel Financial Services Protection Act to shield service members from unscrupulous practices involving sale of insurance or investment products.

The new law takes special aim at overpriced periodic payment plan investments sold to service members by agents who are former service members and retirees. (See “Action in Congress: Too Offensive,” November 2004, p. 23.)

It also amends the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 to require that its rules govern sales of securities on military installations to ensure that service members are fully informed of referral fees or agent incentives, and to clarify that securities sold on base are neither sanctioned, recommended, nor encouraged by the federal government.

The law also establishes a system for registering and disciplining sellers of insurance or investment products on base. It mandates that any state law or regulation governing insurance sales apply to activities conducted on military installations.

The Secretary of Defense now is required to establish and maintain a list of insurance agents and financial advisors that have been barred or banned from doing business on federal military installations.

Cap on Pay Day Loans

Congress agreed to curb predatory lenders operating outside military bases by capping the annual interest rate to military personnel and their dependents at 36 percent, among other stringent payday loan safeguards approved in the 2007 defense authorization bill. The President signed the authorization measure on Oct. 17.

Defense Department officials had urged House-Senate conferees shaping the bill to accept the Senate provision strengthening safeguards against abusive lenders, even while lobbyists for the short-term credit industry attempted to squelch the effort. (See “Action in Congress: Lending Practices Probed,” October, p. 22.)

In addition to the 36 percent cap, the bill prohibits creditors from charging loan annual interest percentage rates that are higher than that charged to the legal residents of the state in which the service member applies for a loan. It also prohibits rollovers.

Despite DOD’s claim that there has been a rise in payday loans carrying exorbitant rates, some lawmakers argued that the Senate language was too restrictive and would dry up easy credit to military personnel. Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.), for example, proposed a last-minute move to drop the rate cap.

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) told colleagues at a Sept. 14 Senate hearing that short-term loans meet a legitimate need for quick cash.

David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, testified in September that the Senate-passed rate ceiling would block lenders “from imposing usurious rates” without cutting off useful sources of credit for military personnel.