Quality of life a priority for 2005 budget

By Tom Philopott: Military Update

With open enthusiasm and some private hand-wringing, Congress began debating this month two initiatives that military associations and key lawmakers identified as quality-of-life priorities for the 2005 budget: Survivor Benefit Plan reform and the opening of TRICARE to drilling reservists.
Advocates for widows and reservists gained some traction in early March despite rising worries over budget deficits and fresh warnings from Defense officials that boosting entitlements won’t improve readiness.
The Senate on Wednesday amended its 2005 budget resolution to allow room for legislation that would open TRICARE, the military’s triple healthcare option, to drilling reservists, National Guard members and families.
They would pay a modest premium, perhaps $500 a year for individual coverage and $1,800 for families, on top of TRICARE usual fees and co-payments.
The amendment by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota directs Senate appropriators to cover the $5.6 billion cost, over five years, using unspent funds earmarked for reconstruction projects in Iraq.
The amendment also supports a 50 percent rise in Montgomery GI Bill education benefits for reservists.
On SBP reform, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said she expected the Republican-led Senate to reject her amendment, seeking $498 million over five years to fund her bill, S 1916.
It would phase out over 10 years the sharp drop in monthly SBP that occurs when surviving spouses turn 62 and become eligible for Social Security. Payments typically drop from 55 percent of the covered annuity down to as low as 35 percent.
“I don’t think it’s going to pass but I’m going to offer it anyway,” Landrieu said. “Because I would like my colleagues on the other side to be on the record in saying, ‘(We) can afford $2.6 trillion in tax cuts but we can’t afford $2 billion (over 10 years) to help out military families.’”
SBP reform and Reserve TRICARE were issues in the House too as the budget committee weighed amendments to its spending ceilings.
Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, committee chairman, promised to impose more fiscal discipline this year. But if the chairman’s markup of the budget resolution fails to include SBP reform, Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, promised an amendment to fund HR 3763, a bill identical to Landrieu’s but introduced by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.
With 12 of 21 Republicans on the House Budget Committee having co-sponsored Miller’s bill, Edwards hoped to force colleagues to choose between helping military survivors and adhering to the will of Republican leaders.
A Democratic staffer said his party learned much in last year’s showdown over concurrent receipt, also known as the Veterans Disability Tax.
Democrats threatened then to use a discharge petition to force a vote on legislation that the White House opposed but many Republicans had co-sponsored. That pressure encouraged Republicans a compromise that boosted the incomes of a few hundred thousand disabled retirees.
“We discovered that if there is enough Democrat pressure on these things Republicans will cave,” bragged a Democratic aide. “And if they don’t cave, then the veterans beat them up.”
The Miller/Landrieu bills, crafted with help from a service association, has made SBP reform look more affordable. It would lower short-term costs by offering enrollment to current retirees who would pay higher premiums. Also it would lengthen to 10 years phase out of the benefit drop at age 62. Last year’s bill proposed a five-year phase out.
The House Armed Services Committee got behind a 10-year reform plan in late February, asking the budget committee to set aside funds. New estimates from the Congressional Budget Office put the cost at $498 million over five years, small enough that proponents hope even Nussle might support it, rather than expose committee Republicans to charges of hypocrisy when actually forced to vote on the bill.
Some Republican committee staffers, however, see the Miller bill as a ruse. They view the real cost as $800 million a year, rising to more than $1 billion, once the 10-year phase in of higher benefits is complete.
That’s why some staffers are “wringing their hands,” said a Republican colleague. “They’re scared the committee is actually going to do something on SBP‚” even with their chairman, Nussle, under pressure to restrain entitlements.

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