Thursday, September 25, 2008

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

At Your Service!!!
Lee F. Kichen
September 2008

Federal Legislative Update

Senate Completes a “Bare Bones” National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)-Last month, in this space we criticized the Senate Democrat leadership for its failure to complete work on its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 09. As the legislative process unfolded this week, we fell victim to a classic example of “if you want it bad, you’ll probably get it bad.” When the Senate returned after the August recess, it was looking at over 300 amendments to the NDAA for floor consideration. Many of these amendments addressed issues we have tracked over the last twelve months. This list of amendments included proposals to expand concurrent receipt eligibility, limit TRICARE fee increases, ease Guard/Reserve retirement age restrictions, authorize TRICARE coverage for "gray area" Reserve retirees, improve benefits for military spouses, authorize a partial family separation allowance for single servicemembers assigned to remote duty, and many, many more.

On 15 and 16 Sep, the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Legislative Committee was on Capitol Hill meeting with respective Members of Congress calling for the passage of both the Military Construction/Veterans Affairs Appropriations and National Defense Authorization Acts before the scheduled end of the month adjournment. On Wednesday, 17 Sep, the Senate abruptly passed the NDAA without considering any of the 300-plus amendments. The only amendment in the final version of the bill of interest to us is Senator Bill Nelson’s (D-FL) language calling for the end of the VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation offset to DoD’s Survivor Benefits Annuity, thus abolishing the so-called ”Widows’ Tax”. Only time will tell if Senator Nelson’s amendment will survive Conference committee reconciliation of the differences between the House and Senate versions of the NDAA.

The work of one senator blocked the passage of many the 300 amendments. With the Congress heading towards adjournment at the end of the month, a bipartisan group of senior members of the Armed Services Committee had already agreed on a list of more than 90 amendments they would propose to approve by "unanimous consent" - which allows bypassing of the normal votes unless some senator objects. Additionally they intended to add several dozen more - including the TRICARE and concurrent receipt provisions.

In spite of a bipartisan agreement, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) took a hard line position against $5 billion in so-called "earmarks" in the NDAA - specific provisions calling for spending on programs that were above and beyond what the Pentagon had requested. He also refused to support any unanimous consent request for any other amendments unless he got a vote on his amendment to drop the earmarks provision - which wasn't going to happen, especially in an election year.
This political brinksmanship, combined with the lack of time left on the Congressional calendar and the pending vote on the financial “bail-out” package effectively kills, in the Senate, those quality of life measures important to many VFW members and their families. In all fairness, even if the Senate bill included all the amendments we supported, it was probable that during the reconciliation process with the House, the conferees may have stripped out many of those amendments.

What is the current status of the “quality of life” issues?

TRICARE Fees. The House-passed bill would bar any TRICARE fees through the end of the next fiscal year. We had hoped to get the Senate to approve some permanent rules to restrict the Pentagon's ability to impose fee increases as well, but it now looks probable that Congress will approve the House version, and we'll face another battle when that freeze expires next year.
Concurrent Receipt. Absent something truly extraordinary, hope for further concurrent receipt progress this year probably went out the window with the loss of Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-NV) amendment. If so, this would be the first year in the last six without at least some forward movement.

Guard/Reserve Retirement Age. Under current law, Guard/Reserve members can cut three months off the Reserve retirement age (60) for each consecutive 90 days served on active duty since January 2008. Sen. Saxby Chambliss' (R-GA) amendment to credit all active duty service since 9/11/01 is nowdead, since there was no similar provision in the House bill.

Military Pay Raise. The House-passed bill calls not only for a 3.9% pay raise for 2009 (vs. the 3.4% proposed in the Pentagon budget), but would also add one-half percentage point to the military raise each year for the next five years. The Senate bill has the 3.9% for 2009, but no plus-up for the out years.

Survivor Benefit Plan. The House bill would make only modest adjustments - including authorizing payment of the new $50 special monthly payment to qualifying survivors whose sponsors died on active duty. The Senate bill, thanks to our own Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), includes the full repeal of the VA benefits deduction from SBP, so that's at least still in play.
MILCON/VA Appropriation and Veterans Benefits Bills Remain on Hold-As reported last month, the Military Construction/Veterans Affairs Appropriation still remains stalled in the Senate. In all likelihood, unconscionable delays by The Congress will result in this very important funding bill dying when Congress adjourns the end of this month forcing VA to operate under a Continuing Resolution until the new Congress takes action. This inaction effectively funds VA at current year’s level, precludes new hiring and establishing new programs until Congress approves the FY 09 appropriation.

In addition to not completing a VA funding bill, Congress appears to be on the verge of abandoning major veterans’ issues in a rush to leave town to run for re-election. Partisan disagreements are preventing The Congress from passing major veterans’ health and benefits bills last year, and the situation appears to be repeating this year. Veterans’ benefits legislation is tied up over a dispute about whether to increase pensions to Filipino Scouts and provide monthly stipends to World War II Merchant Marines. Health care legislation is bogged down, in part, over gun-ownership restrictions for veterans diagnosed with or being treated for mental health issues. While Congress has passed a veterans’ cost-of-living adjustment bill and a “GI Bill for the 21st Century”, it has failed to pass legislation to improve mental health programs, expand health care for women veterans, improve diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injuries, and help families who are caring for severely disabled veterans. The Senate passed S. 1315 which included more generous benefits for Filipino Scouts, the House Veterans Affairs Committee has not cleared H.R. 760. In a compromise that could end the contentious debate over whether the U.S. still owes a debt to Filipinos who served alongside American troops in World War II, the House Veterans Affairs Committee approved a plan September 17 for a one-time payment to surviving veterans instead of an annual pension. But if veterans were to take the payments spelled out in H.R. 6897 — $15,000 for U.S. citizens and $9,000 for non-citizens — they would waive the right to ever receive another pension for their World War II service if the federal government were to someday pass a more generous bill. About 18,000 Filipinos would qualify for payments under the bill, according to estimates prepared by the Congressional Budget Office. With Congress heading towards a September 26th adjournment, the odds of veterans’ benefits bill passing are not good.

VFW National Legislative Committee Sets Priorities for 2009-The Veterans of Foreign Wars National Legislative Committee convened in Washington, DC for its annual priority setting session 13-16 Sep 08. Department of Florida Legislative Chairman Lee F. Kichen, National Legislative Committee members A.E. “Gene” Hall and Al Wallace joined fellow VFW National Legislative Committee members in formulating the following priorities for the 111th Congress:

VA Health Care
The VFW calls on Congress to pass a sufficient budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs so that it can properly care for all of America’s sick and disabled veterans.

The VFW urges funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs to be sufficient, predictable and timely, ending the trend of the last decade wherein VA’s budget has been delivered months late.

Congress must ensure that the unique health care and benefits challenges of OEF/OIF veterans are met, to include increased funding for Traumatic Brain Injuries and other related disabilities, as well as improved access to care, especially for veterans suffering from mental illness and for the growing number of women veterans accessing the system

The VFW calls on Congress and VA to increase priority given to women veterans by providing adequate services by hiring specialized health care providers and by providing training in gender-specific issues to help address shortfalls in gender-specific care and mental health care services for PTSD, Military Sexual Trauma and other needs.

The VFW urges the Department to improve outreach so that all veterans are aware of the range of health care services and benefits available to them, especially with female, minority and rural veterans, who may be less aware of their rights than other groups of veterans.

VA Benefits and Compensation
The VFW asks Congress to provide adequate resources to enable the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) to reduce the current backlog of claims.

To protect the needs of current and future veterans, the VFW opposes any changes to the current definition of “line of duty,” structural changes to the programs for disability and survivors’ benefits, or curtailment of veterans’ or beneficiaries’ rights of entitlement or to appeal benefit decisions.

Seamless Transition
The VFW demands a truly seamless transition for those men and women serving in uniform who are transferring from the Department of Defense to the Department of Veterans Affairs. We envision a system with a truly integrated electronic medical record that travels wherever the service member is stationed eventually to VA where it follows the veteran to wherever he or she receives health care.

The VFW urges Congress and the Administration to improve the transition services and benefits provided to our veterans to ensure a steady and safe return to civilian life, including viable training, employment and education programs that address the realities of the current and future job markets to provide meaningful careers and not just temporary jobs.

Military Quality of Life
The VFW calls on Congress to fully fund all programs that enable our troops to succeed in their mission. We must ensure our active duty, guard and reserve members are provided increased pay, affordable health care, and adequate housing and work facilities for themselves and their families.

Florida Veterans of Foreign Wars Push for VA Appropriation Reform-The inability of Congress to pass on time either a Veterans Affairs funding bill or Defense authorization presents a clear and present danger to America’s warriors past and present and their families. Every year we castigate the Congress for its slow roll on these two important bills. While attending the this year’s fall Legislative Committee meeting, Past Department Commander Gene Hall, Department Legislative Chairman Lee F. Kichen and former Department Political Action Committee Al Wallace were able to meet with twenty members of the Florida Congressional delegation or members of their staff. Hall, Kichen and Wallace emphasized the importance of passing an on time MIL/VA Appropriation Bill.

The National Organization of the VFW and the other major organizations comprising the Partnership for VA Health Care Budget Reform are proposing a simple solution to the problem of late VA appropriation bill. Our proposal calls for a one year advanced appropriation of VA health care. This proposal has the support of the Chairmen of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees, Senator Daniel Akaka and Representative Bob Filner filed companion bills that will, hopefully, lend timeliness and predictably to funding VA Health. In our discussions with Congresswomen Corrine Brown (D-FL3), Ginny Brown-Waite (R-FL5), Kathy Castor (D-FL11), Congressmen Gus Bilirakis (R-FL9), Vern Buchanan (R-FL13), and Cliff Stearns (R-FL6) we sensed a real enthusiasm for this proposal.

Mr. Bilirakis suggested that we seek out the support of C.W. “Bill” Young (R-FL10) Ranking Member of the Appropriations Committee. Ms. Castor indicated that she will discuss this proposal with Chet Edwards (D-TX17), Chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs. While we acknowledge that there is virtually no chance of this bill passing this year, we will full court press this measure when the 111th Congress convenes in January 2009.