Amid sound and fury, some military bills likely to go nowhere

The scaffolding-clad Capitol dome, as seen during the Concert for Valor on the National Mall on Veterans Day 2014.


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 30, 2014

WASHINGTON — The current Congress, entering its final weeks, is on course to be one of the least productive in history.

The passage of new laws hit record lows during the 113th Congress, which spans the last two years. It was not for a lack of trying; about 1,600 bills related to the military were introduced, while only 48 were signed into law, according to a government database that tracks legislation.

A variety of military issues languished — suicide screenings, illegal immigrants in officer schools and toxic exposure. Some were sent to committees, where they quietly died. Others remained in play as lawmakers prepared for a harried last few weeks of legislating following the Thanksgiving break.

Historically, only about 5 percent of bills pass into law, which has meant 300 to 600 new laws per Congress, said Josh Huder, a senior fellow with the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University in Washington.

But partisan wrangling and filibusters have dramatically reduced the number that ever make it to a vote, let alone become law. Only about 185 laws have been passed by this Congress, Huder said.

Those that pass often “aren’t even good bills” because the parties are unwilling to compromise on more complex issues, he said. There have been a lot of bills naming post offices.

The gridlock appears to be having another effect on the military legislation: Lawmakers are filing bills aimed at scoring political points, said Jerry Mayer, associate professor in the School of Policy, Government and International Affairs at George Mason University.

Many tap into important or hot-button issues for troops. Lawmakers may be unsuccessful but know they can always point to the proposals as proof they are working for military constituents.

“It is position-taking. It is not about policy,” Mayer said. “It is about showing you love the military more than the other party does.”

As the curtain comes down on the 113th Congress, Stars and Stripes pulled together a collection of the military bills that might have been or may still be:

Draft cards for all

H.R. 748, The Universal National Service Act.
Last action: March 2013 referred to a House Armed Services subcommittee.

Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., says he knows a way to make the country think more deeply before getting involved in another war: Bring back compulsory public service. His bill calls for the first military draft of the post-Vietnam War era. All 18- to 25-year-olds could be called to fight during wartime and would be required to put in military or civilian public service during peacetime. Rangel wrote in a September op-ed in the Guardian newspaper that it "would compel everyone in the nation to stop and rethink about who we send to wars, how we fight — and why we fight them at all." A draft remains a very tough sell in a country that has relied on an all-volunteer force for decades. Still, the bill "has been referred to the committee, where it will most likely die," a Rangel staffer told Stars and Stripes. "There’s no question that it will be reintroduced."

Getting paid for camo cameos

S.1669, Military Equitable Reimbursement Act.
Last action: November 2013 sent to Senate committee.

The Transformers movie franchise has grossed hundreds of billions of dollars. The U.S. military could have seen some of that money. The Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines eachall supported the movies —– treating it as a public relations bonanza —– by offering up hundreds of servicemember extras, equipment including F-22 jets and Predator drones, and access to facilities such as Edwards Air Force Base in California and the Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. So, who pays and who gets paid for the screen cameos? The military can be reimbursed for the movie productions but current laws make it uncertain whether it can keep the money for use of installations like White Sands. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., proposed closing the loophole and getting the services paid. "Clarifying the reimbursement policy for the film industry allows movie productions to realistically portray the skill, heroism, capability and challenges of our Armed Forces and their families while ensuring local installations are directly reimbursed for use of state-of-the-art facilities and equipment," Heinrich said in a written statement.

Border jumpers in the academy

H.R. 4723, Opportunity for Military Academies and Readiness Act.
Last action: June 2014 sent to House Armed Services subcommittee.

With immigration remaining a contentious issue, some lawmakers and the Pentagon worked around the perimeters of the issue to reform military policy toward undocumented citizens. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, introduced a bill that allows those who were brought here as children and are now authorized to work tocan be admitted to military academies and become commissioned as officers. The Pentagon in September decided to expand its Military Accessions Vital to the Nation Interest program to allow those immigrants to enlist due to a need for specialties in health care and language. But access to military academies and officer posts remains uncertain. Republican leadership blocked a vote earlier this year on whether to add Castro’s measure to an annual defense bill. The rejection likely doomed the legislation during this Congress.

Mental health evals

H.R. 4305, Medical Evaluation Parity for Servicemembers Act.
Last action: May 2014 added to the House version of the national defense budget.

A Pennsylvania congressman has a proposal he says could stem the military’s suicide epidemic and may even help preventstop deadly shooting rampages on bases. The bill introduced earlier this year by Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., calls on the National Institutes of Health to create a universal mental health evaluation for potential recruits that would identify past suicide attempts as well as psychiatric disorders. The data could be used by the services to weed out candidates with potentially dangerous mental health issues. "The MEPS Act enables the Pentagon to establish a baseline to properly track changes in servicemembers’ behavioral health, by instituting a requirement that all incoming troops undergo a mental health assessment upon enlistment," Thompson said in a November floor speech. The proposal won the votes need to be included in the House’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act. But it is still uncertain whether Thompson’s proposal will make the cut as negotiators from both chambers of Congress work on a last-minute compromise defense budget that will include elements of the House-passed NDAA.

Taxpayers as conscientious objectors

H.R.2483 – Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act.
Last action: June 2013 referred to House Ways and Means Committee.

Anti-war sentiment has been a common theme among bills stalled on Capitol Hill. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and studies Gandhi, took up the cause of conscientious objectors inspired by the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling in the Supreme Court, which famously ruled the government cannot stop corporations from spending in support of political candidates. Lewis and a national group of religious leaders argue that citizens should also have a right to opt out of war by withholding tax money from the military. "What it is, is a bill to help people exercise their religious freedom," a Lewis staff member said. The bill creates a separate fund to receive income, gift and estate taxes of those who do not want to the money going to military purposes.

More ‘Oorah!’ in the Navy department

H.R. 124, Re-designate the Department of the Navy as the Department of the Navy and Marine Corps.
Last action: May 22 added into the House defense budget.

You might say Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., has made it his mission to get the Marine Corps higher visibility. Jones, whose district includes the Camp Lejeune, has introduced legislation every year since 2001 to have the service’s name added into the Navy’s official department title, according to his website. The congressman is among those who feel the service, which has historically existed within the Navy, has been slighted by not being acknowledged as a full partner: The Department of the Navy and Marine Corps. The idea got a strong boost from the House earlier this year when it was included in the chamber’s annual defense budget, but Congress is wrangling over a compromise budget, and it is unclear whether it might make the final cut.

Ringing up the bill

H.R. 1238, True Cost of War Act.
Last action: March 2013 referred to House committee.

A recent Harvard study estimated the costs for the Afghanistan and last Iraq wars could be $4 to $6 trillion — the current national debt is just short of $18 trillion — but the ultimate cost is largely unknown. That is because much of the cost is incurred decades after conflicts through the payout of benefits to troops and veterans. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who lost in the midterms to Joni Ernst, repeatedly proposed a law requiring the White House to make an official calculation of those long-term costs including care for injured vets, mental health treatment, prosthetics and spouse benefits. But the last version of the bill he introduced, the True Cost of War Act, stalled in committee and appears unlikely to make a resurgence before his time in Congress is over.

The name says it all

H.R. 4632, If Our Military Has to Fly Coach Then So Should Congress Act.
Last action: May 9 referred to a House committee.

The titles of bills are often descriptive of what is inside of them, but Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., managed to include a full political philosophy. When it was introduced in May, Gosar released a statement saying, "At a time of massive deficits and with a national debt in excess of $17 trillion, members of Congress should not be using taxpayers’ hard-earned money to buy luxury airline seats. If members of our military can’t fly first class using taxpayer funds, neither should members of Congress." The title appears to have some political motivations. The Washington Post reported that a co-sponsor, Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., had been getting hammered in an election year for previously voting against a similar bill. It has remained stalled in committee for the past six months.

A long-sought ‘sorry’

H.R. 44, Guam World War II Loyalty Recognition Act.
Last action: June 14 passed to the Senate in an omnibus bill.

Many Guamanians believe the U.S. abandoned it during the early days of World War II, allowing Imperial Japanese forces to occupy. Some there still remember Japanese atrocities such as mass executions, forced labor, torture, internment and rape. Marines liberated the island after heavy fighting, but for about 30 years Guam lawmakers have pushed for U.S. reparations. Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, D-Guam, sponsored the most recent legislation. The bill passed the House as part of an omnibus bill including legislation for other territories but Senate leadership has not moved on a floor vote.

Toxic near Tokyo

H.R.4517, Examination of Exposures to Environmental Hazards during Military Service and Health Care for Atsugi Naval Air Facility Veterans and their Families Act.
Last action: July 1 sent to House committee.

Beginning in 1985, a Japanese commercial waste incinerator pumped smoke over the adjacent Naval Air Facility Atsugi near Tokyo. The Shinkampo Incinerator Complex disposed of 90 tons of industrial and medical waste daily and raised such high concerns with the Navy that it pressed for it to be shutdown in 2001. The Department of Veterans Affairs warns that those stationed theres might suffer a variety of illnesses, including an elevated lifetime risk of cancer. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., was approached by servicemembers in his district concerned about exposure. His bill would require the Defense Department and the VA to create an advisory panel to study cases of exposure, examine individual health claims, and create a list of all the troops and family members who might have been exposed.

Men who cut up goats

S. 1550, Battlefield Excellence through Superior Training Practices Act.
Last action: September 2013 sent to Senate committee.

The Pentagon has repeatedly said using live animals in trauma training saves the lives of U.S. troops on the battlefield. But the practice of killing goats and other animals to simulate real-world experience — splinting broken bones and cutting tracheotomies — has rankled some in Congress as well as animal rights groups. Last year, a new generation of high-tech trauma mannequins were demonstrated on Capitol Hill, opening the possibility that animal simulations could someday be replaced. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., sponsor of the Battlefield Excellence through Superior Training Practices Act, argued that time is already here. "It’s wrong to kill animals when better training methods exist," Wyden said. "Today’s technology can provide extremely lifelike training simulations that better represent the anatomy of a soldier and more realistically simulate the conditions on the battlefield." But the 113th Congress is not likely to be the time for his bill to pass.

In-vitro vets

S. 131, Women Veterans and Other Health Care Improvements Act.
Last action: September 2013 placed on the Senate calendar.

For those wounded in battle, difficulty having children can be an issue. The military covers treatments such as in vitro fertilization, where a sperm and egg are joined outside of the body, but the VA does not. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said that is forcing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans wounded in roadside bombings and other combat to pay tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket for treatment or put off starting a family. Some 2,000 vets could benefit from fertility treatments, but costs could total $568 million over five years and Republicans have opposed it, saying the money is needed for other military spending.

Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

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