Military update: Senators toss key amendments to save earmarks
September 20, 2008
To protect its prerogative of adding billions of dollars of pork-barrel projects to defense bills, the Senate Sept. 17 passed its fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill without allowing votes on 101 pending amendments, some of them important to service personnel.
About a third of the ignored amendments would have improved military quality of life or the management of service personnel programs.
But one amendment, introduced by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), would have given the Department of Defense authority to ignore up to $5 billion of “earmarks” found not in the bill but buried in the bill’s thick report.
Senators decided to abandoned all remaining amendments rather than face an embarrassing election-year rhubarb over pork-barrel spending.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the armed service committee and floor manager of the bill, said DeMint’s amendment would have been “an abdication of the power of the purse” in shaping defense policy bills.
Key personnel initiatives left for next Congress to take up included:
EARLY RESERVE RETIREMENT – This amendment from Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) would have made more than 140,000 reservists who have been mobilized since Sept. 11, 2001, eligible for earlier reserve retirement.
Last year, Congress adopted a pared down Chambliss amendment on reserve retirement. It lowered the age 60 start for retired pay of Reserve and National Guard members who mobilize for war or national emergencies. For every 90 consecutive days mobilized, a reservist would see retired pay begin three months earlier, if they otherwise qualify for retirement. So a reservist who was mobilized a total of 24 months to Iraq or Afghanistan could begin to draw retired pay at age 58.
But for lack of funds last year, Congress made this change applicable only for deployment time after Jan. 28, 2008. Chambliss’ amendment this year would have applied the change to mobilizations since 9-11.
CONCURRENT RECEIPT -- Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had introduced amendments to expand “concurrent receipt” more military retirees who now have their retired pay reduced by amounts received as disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
One Reid amendment would have accelerated phased restoration of full annuities retirees with disability ratings of 50 to 90 percent. If this change were adopted, the retired pay offset for these retirees would have been eliminated at the end of this month rather than by Dec. 31, 2013.
The other Reid amendment would have extended concurrent receipt to non-combat disabled retirees with 15 or more years of service.
LEAVE FOR DEPLOYED MEMBERS – An amendment from Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) would have directed that rest and recuperation leave for deployed service members not count toward their 30-day annual leave limit.
MILITARY VOTER HELP – Amendments from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) would have eased the hassle of voting for members by allowing voter registration during change-of-station moves and modifying procedures for collection and delivery of absentee ballots from members overseas.
Other amendments the Senate declined to consider would have: enhanced separation allowance; extended federal employment preferences and work credits to military spouses; allowed stillborn children to be treated as insurable dependents under Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance; increased the ceiling on tuition assistance; reimbursed for family travel when service members need treatment for serious mental disorders.
It can’t be assumed the full Congress would have adopted any of these amendments if voted by the Senate vote. Reid’s concurrent receipt provisions, for example, carry hefty costs and would have had difficulty surviving a House-Senate conference committee which will meet to iron out differences between the two bills. But now none of the provisions will be in the mix during deliberations with the House.
Senate passage of its defense bill with few amendments doesn’t put at risk those amendments already adopted. The most important one for 57,000 military widows, voted last week, would eliminate an offset in survivor benefits for widow drawing VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation.
The Senate’s defense bill also has many other provisions to benefit military members including a 3.9 percent pay raise next January and authority to allow up to three weeks’ paternity leave to military fathers. The House bill supports the pay raise but it silent on paternity leave.
DeMint’s showdown over “earmarks” was sparked by an executive order President Bush signed last January to reduce wasteful spending. It said departments could withhold spending on budget items not specifically found in bill signed into law but contained in non-statutory reports on bills.
Democrats sought to get around that order, DeMint said, by adding language to the defense bill that “each funding table” found in the bill’s report is “incorporated” in the bill itself, thus protecting earmarks from department “merit” reviews demanded by the executive order.
DeMint’s amendment sought to remove that language, found in Section 1002 of the defense bill (S. 3001), so that Defense officials could decide “not to spend money on projects…not needed to defend out country.”
The vote to pass the defense bill without further amendments was 88-to-8. Reid, Chambliss, Cornyn and other sponsors of key personnel initiatives joined with the majority. Only seven senators joined DeMint in voting against passage: Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Tom Coburn, Russell Feingold, Lindsey Graham, Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) and David Vitter (R-La.).
Not present to vote were Sens. Biden, John McCain (R-Ariz.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.).