Military Update: Senate bill chock full of benefits, but lacks funds
The Senate has passed a 2006 defense authorization bill filled with new and improved military benefits, but almost none of them are funded.
The lack of committed budget dollars likely dooms, at least for this year, some of the more popular initiatives endorsed by the Senate, even as their inclusion in the bill raised expectations, particularly among reservists, survivors and a special group of disabled retirees.
House leaders, frustrated by the Senate’s handling of the defense bill, predict difficult negotiations ahead, aggravated by the need to reach compromises in time to pass a final bill before adjournment in December.
Still, the sheer volume of personnel initiatives embraced by the Senate had House members in mid-November searching for potential shifts in budget dollars to support at least some of them.
A House-Senate conference committee will work to iron out differences in the two versions of the bill. A separate conference is completing work on a 2006 defense appropriations bill. That money bill had no dollars set aside to pay for the Senate’s new initiatives.
“The Senate enjoys a certain freedom of process that doesn’t apparently require them to pay for anything they put in their bill,” said Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., chairman of the House armed services subcommittee on military personnel, in a phone interview.
McHugh said the Senate bill endorses “a half-dozen or so very popular and very meritorious” personnel-related provisions that, if enacted, “would add literally tens of billions of dollars” in spending over 10 years. Yet senators, he said, “don’t have one cent applied against the cost.”
“We can’t take [unfunded] provisions to the floor,” McHugh warned. “They would be subject to budget points-of-order and rejected. … As in other years, we will have to sit down and see what we can fit and where it can fit.” He added, “Even by Senate standards, this is a pretty remarkable menu.”
Key initiatives in the Senate authorization bill (S 1042):
It would eliminate the Survivor Benefit Plan-Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (SBP-DIC) offset. This provision would end the dollar-for-dollar reduction in military survivor benefits that occurs when widows or widowers also draw Department of Veterans Affairs dependency and indemnity compensation. It is the top legislative goal this year for several service associations.It would move up by three years the effective date of the SBP premium “paid-up” rule. Effective back to Oct. 1, 2005, the premiums would end for retirees who have paid them for 30 years or reached age 70, whichever occurs later. The current effective date of the rule is Oct. 1, 2008. The cost of the SBP provisions is $9.2 billion over the first 10 years.It would accelerate restoration of full retired pay for 28,000 retirees with 20 or more years’ service and drawing VA compensation at the 100 percent level because they are rated unemployable. The current 10-year phased plan for restoring their retired pay would be replaced with full payments retroactive to last January. The House bill would restore full retired pay in 2009 rather than 2014. The Senate provision would cost an extra $900 million over 10 years.The new Tricare Reserve Select plan would be opened to all drilling reservists or National Guard members willing to pay monthly premiums of $75 for member-only coverage or $233 for family coverage. Defense officials describe the cost — $3.8 billion over the first five years — as unacceptable.Federal civilian employees who see a drop in pay when mobilized as Reserve or National Guard members would receive an income differential under certain conditions. Payments would begin if mobilized for more than 180 days, or for 24 months out of the last 60, or if they are involuntarily mobilized less than six months after a previous mobilization. The cost would be $295 million over its first five years.It would allow reserve retirement earlier than age 60, the current threshold, to reward service in contingency operations since the Sept. 11 attacks. The start of reserve retired pay would be moved up by three months for every 90 days of active duty served. Sen. C. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., its sponsor, said Defense Department officials favor this plan because it rewards service and, at a cost of $300 million over its first five years, is the least costly alternative “offered so far” to relax age 60 reserve retirement.The Senate would give $150,000 in retroactive payments to survivors of 1,200 servicemembers who died on active duty from Oct. 7, 2001, through May 11, 2005, from conditions unrelated to combat. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, said these families were excluded from a retroactive increase in coverage under the Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance back to the start of the war in Afghanistan.McHugh said all of these provisions have merit but tough decisions now must be made based on available funds.
“Admittedly, it’s a politically untenable place to be,” he said, with House conferees bound by their own budget rules to show the discipline that took a holiday during Senate floor action.
“The Senate is aware of the House rules, and it doesn’t seem to have any impact on their vote,” said McHugh. “Once on the floor, all bets are off.”
The priority of the House in sorting through new or expanded benefits will be troops in the field and their families, McHugh said. Senate proposals that focus on deferred payments such as survivor benefits and concurrent receipt, he said, should “come later in the queue. I would hope the Senate understands this and would join us in what will be a very difficult exercise.”