Lack of funds dooms defense initiatives

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

The Senate has passed a 2006 defense authorization bill filled with new and improved military benefits — almost none of them 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 begin soon 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.”

Here are some key initiatives in the Senate authorization bill (S 1042):

• Eliminate SBP-DIC Offset. This provision would end the dollar-for-dollar reduction in military survivor benefits that occurs when widows or widowers also draw VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation. It is the top legislative goal this year for several service associations.

• Paid-Up SBP. This would move up by three years the effective date of the SBP premium “paid-up” rule. Effective back to Oct. 1, 2005, premium 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.

• Accelerated Concurrent Receipt. This 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.

• Reserve TRICARE. The new TRICARE Reserve Select (TRS) plan would be opened to all drilling reservist or National Guard member 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.

• Income Replacement. 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.

• Retroactive SLGI Hike. The Senate would give $150,000 in retroactive payments to survivors of 1,200 service members 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.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: