Draft defense budget offers troop perks
WASHINGTON — The annual defense budget began to take shape Friday with proposals for a bigger Army, troop pay raises and longer hours at military hospitals.
The perks were part of an early draft of the National Defense Authorization Act unveiled by the House before the massive policy bill is debated next week. The Senate is expected to hammer out its version of the bill in May.
House Republicans are pushing to bolster the military and put more money into defense despite tight budget caps on federal spending. The reversal of a planned Army troop drawdown and the highest troop pay raise in years is central to the efforts in the $610-billion legislation, which is being crafted by the House Armed Services Committee.
Reform is also a key theme in the draft bill, according to a briefing by House staff Friday. The military health care system would be required to provide more after-hours access for patients and commissary stores would be required to try out a variable pricing system, meaning stories in more expensive locales could charge more for groceries.
The biggest hurdle Republicans face is paying for the bill. The dollar amounts in the defense budget are capped, according to an agreement struck by Congress last fall. But Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said this week that he will find the extra $18 billion needed by only funding the war against the Islamic State group for seven months, instead of a full year.
However, he acknowledged the move will likely draw a veto threat from President Barack Obama. The NDAA was vetoed last year due to a similar budgeting tactic by Republicans.
Here is a preview of what is in the draft NDAA before it is debated – and potentially amended – Wednesday by the Armed Services Committee:
◾ A bigger Army – The bill blocks the service from culling 15,000 soldiers and adds an additional 5,000. It does not stop but throws up a significant roadblock to the Army’s plans to reduce its active-duty force from 492,000 to 450,000 over three years.
◾ Pay raise – Troops would get a 2.1 percent increase to base pay, an increase to the 1.3 percent ordered last year by President Obama. That would be the highest raise in years and equal an additional $11 per month for an E4 servicemember.
◾ After-hours health care – Military hospitals and clinics would be required to stay open beyond normal business hours. The Pentagon would be left to choose precise hours for specific facilities but treatment facilities would no longer be allowed to close for the day at 4:30 p.m. New urgent care centers would be required to remain open until 11 p.m.
◾ Tricare fee hike in 2018 – If you join the military after Jan. 1, 2018, you and your family would be required to pay new annual Tricare enrollment fees. For basic health insurance, an individual servicemember would pay $180 and a family would pay $360. Those fees would double for Tricare coverage that allows beneficiaries to go outside of their network for care.
◾ Commissary reform – A pilot program for variable pricing would allow stores to raise prices in some areas to be more competitive with grocery prices outside of the base gate. The commissary system also would be permitted to sell its own brand of products. It is an attempt to reduce the $1.4 billion annual cost of running the worldwide chain of 243 military grocery stores.
◾ Women in the draft – The Selective Service program, which registers men for the draft, would be reviewed in the wake of the military’s decision to fully integrate women into all combat roles. The review will look toward alternatives to the system, presumably adding registry of women or doing away with the draft system.
◾ Afghanistan forces – The bill provides enough money to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, despite Obama’s plans to draw down forces there to 5,500. It would give the next president the flexibility to halt the reduction if the situation there deteriorates further.
◾ Iraq and Syria plan – The Obama administration would be required to write up a plan for stabilizing Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria – the two power centers of the Islamic State group – if the United States and its allies are able to retake the cities. The projected number of U.S. troops needed to stabilize the area would be part of the plan.