Saturday, December 8, 2007

Legislative Update - Congress Leaves Troops and Veterans Holding the Bag

Inconceivably, the United States Congress took a two week break for Thanksgiving without finishing work on key bills effecting our Armed Forces, veterans and their families. There is only way to describe this irresponsible neglect, it is despicable. Left hanging are the Defense Authorization, the Veterans Affairs Appropriation and emergency war funding.

Defense Appropriation Signed, Defense Authorization Bill Stalled - It's important to distinguish between the Defense Appropriations Bill and the Defense Authorization Bill. Congress considers both bills at about the same time, and that's a source of confusion every year. Even more so this year, since Congress has completed the Defense Appropriation, but not the Defense Authorization. Although, the President, has signed the appropriations bill, not a nickel can be spent until The Congress enacts the Authorization bill and it is signed by the President. The authorization bill includes the law changes needed to authorize troop levels, weapons procurement, new programs, and changes in pay and benefits (including pay raises, health coverage, concurrent receipt and survivor benefits). Final provisions of the authorization bill are currently being negotiated by leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, but the final bill won't be ready for congressional passage until some time after Thanksgiving according to some Hill sources.

My best guess is that it is unlikely that anything will happen until after the first of the year when the second session of the 110th Congress convenes. The big hang-up on this bill has nothing to do with Defense and National Security. Evidently, the bill is ready to go except for contentious debate over a hate crimes provision inserted in the Senate version of the bill by Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA). The appropriations bill, on the other hand, provides the funding to pay for the things that are approved in the authorization bill. It was signed into law this week P.L. 110-116. Key items include:

  • $459 billion for the Department of Defense, $39.7 billion above 2007, a 9.5% increase.
    Defense Health Programs. $23.5 billion, $918 million above the President's budget request.
  • Cancels proposed increases in TRICARE co-pays by fully funding the $1.9 billion TRICARE shortfall without cost to our troops.
  • Adds $70 million to fund programs authorized under the Dignified Treatment of Wounded Warrior Act.
  • Military Pay and End strength: Fully funds a 3.5 percent pay increase for all service members, 0.5 percent above the President's request.
  • Adds funds to increase the Army by 7000 troops, the USMC by 5,000 and the Army National Guard by 1,300.
  • Military Families: Includes $2.6 billion for military family counselors, teachers, and child care providers.
Congress Fails to Provide Funds for War-The two bills described above don’t provide expenditures for the Global War on Terrorism. These operations have been funded by supplemental appropriations. Due to haggling between the Senate Democrats and Republicans, this bill failed to pass. With 60 votes needed to cut off debate, the Senate mustered 55 votes for a House-passed measure including a troop withdrawal plan, along with $50 billion in temporary funding for the war. A Republican substitute that would have provided money without the withdrawal strings got 43 votes.

Failure to pass what lawmakers have called a “bridge” fund to cover war costs for a limited time while waiting on approval of a larger budget has no immediate effect, but, if this impasse continues, DoD will have to curtail other programs to continue operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Action Stalled on the VA Appropriation-Another key bill still hung-up in Congress is the Veterans Affairs/Military Construction Appropriations bill. Although both the Senate and House has completed work on the FY ’08 VA Appropriation bill, it has not sent the VA appropriations bill to the President for his signature which will provide $37.2 billion for health care representing a $3.7 billion increase over last year’s funding. The Democratic leadership cluttered up a clean VA appropriations bill which passed the House in June 2007 by adding funding for the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services. The original veterans’ bill had bipartisan support, but, the President has threatened to veto the Labor-HHS bill. Consequently, VA is still operating at last year’s funding levels. It is absolutely shameful that the key bills impacting active duty, reservists, veterans and their families are being held hostage by partisan bickering.

Vet Cost of Living Allowances Signed into Law-The President has signed into law (P.L. 110-111) the annual COLA adjustment for certain veterans benefits. The 2.3% hike is the same as the annual Social Security rate and military retired pay. The COLA applies to VA disability compensation payments, survivors' dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC), and a clothing allowance for certain veterans'. The change becomes effective on December 1 and will be reflected in checks mailed in early January 2008. One example, the new basic monthly DIC rate for survivors of veterans who died of service-related causes after January 1, 1993 will increase to approximately $1,091 from $1,067.

GI Bill for the 21st Century Gets Local Cosponsors-Congressman Vern Buchanan (R-FL13) and Congressman Tim Mahoney (D-FL 16) announced their co-sponsorship of H.R. 2702, , the Post 9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act (H.R. 2702). This bill if signed into law will provide full tuition (based on the cost of the highest in-state tuition at public institutions, educational fees, books, room and board and monthly living expense stipend.

State Legislative Update

State Veterans Planning Group Adopts Legislative Priorities-In its September meeting the SVPG adopted the priorities listed below for the 2008 at Regular Session of the Florida Legislature.

Legislation establishing preferences for businesses owned by Disabled Veterans bidding on state contracts

Legislation protecting FDVA Trust Fund revenues by adding an additional $100,000 to the Grants and Donations Trust Fund from the sale of new stamped license plates bearing “Operation Enduring Freedom and “ Operation Iraqi Freedom”

Legislation exempting FDVA Trust Funds from Department of Administration service charges

Legislation authorizing FDVA use of Grants & Donations trust funds for personal care of State Veterans Nursing Home residents

Legislation defining the proper display of the Prisoner of War/Missing in Action flag on state owned buildings

Passage of the Governor’s Legislative Budget Request for the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs

Legislation establishing a tuition exemption at State Universities, Colleges and Community Colleges to honorably discharged veterans who received a Campaign or Service Medal denoting service in a combat theatre of operation.

Legislation providing “Transportation Disadvantaged” funds for the Disabled American Veterans Transportation Van Service

Legislation providing equal treatment for wartime veterans in the state retirement system

Legislation establishing bonuses for honorably discharged veterans who received the Iraqi Campaign Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, or the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal

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