Wednesday, August 13, 2008

August Legislative Update from Lee F. Kichen, LTC, U.S. Army (Ret.)


Federal Legislative Update

United States Senate Walks Away from Two Key Bills

Senate Democrat Leadership Delays 09 Defense Authorization Act-Once again Congress delays two bills that are crucial to active and reserve service members, veterans, military retirees and their families. Due to the usual partisan bickering Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) pulled the FY 09 National Defense Authorization Act from the floor. Ironically, the House of Representatives finished its version of this bill in May.

The authorization bill is the key vehicle for nearly all military personnel changes, and the Senate is scheduled to consider amendments to prevent undue TRICARE increases, ease compensation penalties for disabled retirees and military widows, plus up military pay raises, and fix Reserve retirement inequities, among others. All issues discussed in earlier “Battling Inside the Beltway” columns.

But it's hung up in the Senate because some senators won't agree to limit amendments to defense-related issues. The single biggest issue is that some Republicans insist on being able to add amendments to expand oil-drilling. But Sen. John Warner (R-VA), the elder statesman and former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, isn't among them. Warner voted to move on with the defense bill and limit amendments to defense issues. But that effort gathered only 51 votes...9 short of the 60 needed to end the debate and move on. While we recognize that Congress has the responsibility to produce some meaningful energy legislation, we don’t believe that this important bill should be delayed because of partisanship.

Given that Congress will adjourn early in October to allow members to return to the District to campaign, it is a safe bet that this bill will not be done before adjournment. Unless there is a post election lame duck session, it is likely that this bill won’t be finished until next year.

The nightmare scenario is that the oil-drilling fight could delay Senate action so long that Senate leaders feel compelled to drop nearly all defense bill amendments -- including some that military people really need -- just to get the bill passed and go home. Some fear it could scuttle the defense bill altogether -- an unthinkable scenario in time of war. These amendments include the one sponsored by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) which would end the so-called “Widow’s Tax” by abolishing the prohibition against the concurrent receipt of both the Survivors’ Benefits Annuity and VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation. Senator Mel Martinez (R-FL) is also a cosponsor of this important amendment.

Senate Allows Veterans Affairs Funding Bill to Languish-To quote that great American philosopher Yogi Berra, “…it must be déjà vu all over again…” The Senate also left the FY 09 Military Construction/Veterans Affairs Appropriation on the table as it blew out of The Capital for the August recess. On August 1, the full House of Representatives passed the Fiscal Year 2009 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill, H.R. 6599, with a nearly unanimous vote of 409 to 4. The 2009 bill builds on the historic increases for veterans and troops passed into law last year, and, if signed into law, it would be the largest funding increase in the 78-year history of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

For the VA, the bill would provide $47.7 billion in health and other discretionary funding, $4.6 billion above 2008 and $2.9 billion over the Administration's request. These funds would provide substantial relief in improving veterans' medical care, hiring more claims processors, conducting new research, expanding VA efforts to combat homelessness, and helping VA make improvements to its facilities. The Veterans Health Administration estimates VA will treat more than 5.8 million patients in 2009 including more than 333,275 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan (40,000 more than 2008).

The Senate Appropriations Committee has reported a separate funding bill, S. 3301 but was not scheduled for a vote before the summer recess. Please write your U.S. Senators to urge them to schedule a vote on veterans funding for fiscal year 2009 immediately after they return to Washington in September. It is intolerable that as VA expects to care for over a third of a million injured and ill veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus continues to care for millions of sick and disabled veterans of prior military service, that yet another year would begin without full VA funding. Unless the Senate acts quickly, then conferences with the House, this new funding for veterans will be in jeopardy and at minimum will be significantly delayed, perhaps as long as March 2009.

House Votes on Key Veterans’ Program Bills-At least the House of Representatives completed work on some important bills before the summer recess. Although hope is not a method, let’s hope the Senate will get to work on these bills before next St. Patrick’s Day. These important bills address disability, financial, tax, reemployment, and health care protections for veterans and military families.

  • VA Disability System Reform: H.R. 5892 would implement a number of recommendations of the Veterans Disability Benefits Commission. The bill would require the VA to provide immediate payment for unquestioned disabilities such as amputations rather than holding up claims until all conditions are evaluated. It would also require a plan to modernize the VA disability rating schedule and address quality of life issues, change evaluator incentives to improve processing quality, and require the VA to establish special offices to assist survivors and dependents. In addition, it would allow a survivor or dependent to proceed with a VA claim if the veteran dies before it is adjudicated.

  • Mortgage Foreclosure Protections: H.R. 3221 would prohibit foreclosure on property owned by a servicemember for nine months (vs. 90 days) following deployment. It would also increase, through the end of 2008, the maximum guaranty amount for mortgages backed by the VA.

  • VA Health Care and Counseling: H.R. 6445 would exempt vets who have catastrophic, non-service-connected disabilities from paying copayments for hospital or nursing home care and loosen restrictions on counseling for those vets' family members

  • Reemployment Rights: H.R. 6225 would strengthen protections for reservists denied reemployment benefits by state or private employers

  • Armed Forces Student Rights: H.R. 6225 would limit interest on loan debts to 6% for members on active duty. It would also require colleges to refund tuition and fees for students forced to leave school because of military orders and reinstate those students on return with the same academic status held prior to service

  • Cellphone Contracts: H.R. 6225 would let servicemembers terminate or suspend personal services contracts (e.g., cellphone or cable TV) entered into before being notified of PCS or deployment orders and penalize providers who violate the law

  • Spouse Domicile: H.R. 6225 would let spouses of active duty members maintain the same state of domicile as the servicemember for state taxation purposes and voter registration

  • Roth Thrift Saving Plan (TSP): A provision in H.R. 1108 would allow servicemembers and federal workers a "Roth TSP" option, entailing taxable deposits into the federal retirement savings plan and tax-free withdrawals in retirement

  • In-state Tuition: H.R. 4137 would require all states to continue in-state college tuition rates for a military dependent previously granted such rates if the military parent is re-assigned outside the state.