Military Update: Pay raise assured, but other military benefits are still in limbo
Active-duty members, Reserve and Guard personnel, and academy cadets and midshipmen are assured a 3.1 percent pay raise in January. But other key pay and benefit gains proposed for 2006 are in limbo as Senate leaders tussle over the politics of passing a defense authorization bill.
Concern that the bill is in jeopardy deepened earlier this month when Sens. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat, tried to attach the bill to the defense appropriations bill as it neared a final vote. Tempers flared. Egos clashed. The Warner plan ultimately failed when his mammoth “amendment” was found “not germane” to the funding bill, on a slim 50-49 vote.
The House passed its defense authorization bill in June, and included the 3.1 percent military pay raise. The obvious argument then for saving the Senate bill is that inaction will kill that prized pay raise, endangering troop morale in wartime. In fact, say Senate staff members, it’s not true.
The authorization bill doesn’t need to be passed for the January pay raise to take effect. Authority for the raise was granted in 1999, under the fiscal 2000 defense authorization act. That law directs that annual military raises from 2001 through 2006 be set one-half percentage point above private sector wage growth, as measured by the government’s Employment Cost Index, unless Congress again intervenes.
ECI data for setting the 2006 pay raise show private-sector wages rose 2.6 percent. Under the statutory formula, the military is entitled to 0.5 percent more, or 3.1 percent. The Senate for years hasn’t even included a military pay raise in its authorization bill, recognizing that the 1999 statute will provide one.
Money to fund the pay raise is in separate legislation — the defense appropriations bill — which the Senate passed Oct. 7. The companion House bill also funds a 3.1 percent increase, so the raise won’t be issue when a House-Senate conference committee meets later this month to negotiate final details of the appropriations bill.
Though the January pay raise is secure, other initiatives important to the armed forces in wartime — and to groups of servicemembers, retirees and their survivors — will be sidelined if a defense authorization bill isn’t passed.
The Senate bill, for example, calls for opening the Tricare Reserve Select program to all drilling reservists and families willing to pay its premiums. A similar provision was pulled from the House bill. But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., says he is confident an expanded Tricare benefit for reservists will be negotiated, if the bill clears the Senate.
Service associations, meanwhile, are counting on Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to press for his two-part amendment to 1) move up by three years, to Oct. 1, 2005, the effective date of a “30-year and paid-up” premium feature to the military’s Survivor Benefit Plan and to 2) eliminate a $993-a-month reduction in SBP benefits that surviving spouses see when they accept the same amount in VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, payable if the member’s or the retiree’s death was service-related.
Some of the personnel initiatives in the House bill would:
raise the ceiling on hardship duty pay, from $300 a month to $750;increase maximum enlistment bonuses, from $20,000 to $30,000 for active-duty recruits and from $10,000 to $15,000 for reserve recruits;increase the reserve component affiliation bonus, to $15,000;authorize the Army to test a referral bonus of $1,000 for servicemembers who find qualified prospects for a recruiter (the bonus would be payable when the referred recruit completes advanced training); andaccelerate restoration of full retired pay, in addition to full VA compensation, to retirees with 20 or more years of service who are rated “unemployable.” These 28,000 retirees are seeing retired pay restored but on a 10-year, phase-in schedule. The House wants to accelerate full “concurrent receipt” for these IU retirees so their retired pay is entirely restored by Oct. 1, 2009, rather than by Jan. 1, 2014.Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., had suspended work on the Senate defense bill in late July to move other legislation before the August recess.
With more than 200 amendments pending — some involving Iraq and other politically charged issues, and others costly enough to attract a presidential veto threat — Frist, Warner, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Levin are negotiating over possible ways to limit debate and control the number of amendments.
“This is pretty much where [Warner’s] total focus is right now,” said a Senate staffer. “He’s urging the majority leader to work something out.”
With a new Supreme Court nominee adding to Senate business, Frist doesn’t want the chamber tied up on the defense bill for two weeks or more. But negotiations are difficult. One alternative offered, and quickly rejected, would have allowed each side to present 12 amendments to be debated and voted on — in addition, presumably, to a thick packet of amendments that Senate Democrats and Republicans already agree they can support. One such amendment, from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., embraces the Army’s request to double the enlistment bonus ceiling, to $40,000.
The Senate staff member said leadership remains confident that a defense authorization bill will be passed this year. The strongest argument for passage, he suggested, is not the costly entitlement changes proposed for retirees and survivors but the new recruiting initiatives that the Army says it needs to avoid another year of missed recruiting targets.
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