House approves military pay raise

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

The House passed a $441.6 billion defense authorization bill for fiscal 2006 that includes a 3.1 percent military pay raise for next January and higher ceilings on bonuses and special pays.

Before Wednesday’s vote, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the armed services committee, pulled a provision that would have opened the new TRICARE Reserve Select (TRS) to any drilling Reserve or Guard member. Hunter retreated on a controversial initiative that would have tightened congressional oversight of women assignments to avoid combat.

The 2006 military pay raise, which the Senate is expected to match in passing its own defense bill, would be the seventh annual military raise to exceed private sector wage growth, further narrowing a perceived gap.

But attracting far more attention before a final vote was Hunter’s decision, two days after the bill cleared committee, to discard a provision to open TRS to any drilling Reserve or Guard member willing to pay monthly premiums of $75 for individual coverage or $233 for family coverage.

Citing new analysis from the Congressional Budget Office, Hunter said expanding TRS, which overall would cost more than $1 billion a year, also would hike mandatory spending, by $5 million in 2006, and therefore was in technical violation of the Congressional Budget Act. Hunter exercised his prerogative as chairman and removed the provision from the bill.

An angry Gene Taylor, D-Miss., who had won a 32-30 bipartisan vote for his TRS amendment in committee, sought a waiver from the House Rules Committee to re-introduce it when the defense bill reached the floor. The rules committee rejected the request on a straight party-line vote.

“So,’’ Taylor complained to colleagues, “the same Congress that has brought 21 bills to this floor waiving all budget rules no matter how much it ran up the deficit, the same Congress that has added $2.2 trillion to the national debt in just four years, (the same Congress) that decided Paris Hilton can inherit hundreds of millions of dollars without paying a penny in taxes, decided that because (of) $5 million in mandatory spending, these National Guardsmen can no longer buy their (TRS) policy.’’

Taylor made one final challenge after the House completed all work on the defense bill except for the final vote. He filed a motion to recommit the bill — that is, to open it again — for consideration of expanding TRS.

“This is going to become law,’’ Taylor said, noting that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., will introduce a similar amendment when the Senate shapes its defense bill. “And it’s going to pass,’’ he said. The question for the House is whether its members will take the lead.

Taylor reminded colleagues they soon would be in Memorial Day services with Reserve and Guard members who need health insurance.

“You can duck some, hide from some. You can give them some lame excuse that, ‘Well, it wasn’t what my party wanted. It wasn’t what my chairman wanted,’’ Taylor said. ”Or you can tell them … ‘You were there for us and (on Wednesday) I was there for you.’’’

Hunter had the last word. He informed colleagues that reservists and their families have TRICARE coverage from 90 days before mobilization until at least 120 days after they return. So the image of deployed reservists serving alongside active forces but without health coverage is wrong, he said.

The problem with expanding TRS to any drilling reservist, Hunter said, is that civilian employers will “game the system’’ and stick the government with providing for all reservists’ healthcare, arguing they earn it anyway.

Also, said Hunter, the $5.8 billion that Taylor would spend over five years on healthcare to reservists in drill status is needed to modernize their weapons and equipment for when they do deploy.

Taylor’s motion to recommit was defeated 218-211.
Other highlights of the House-passed bill include:
n Hardship duty pay: The monthly $300 ceiling would rise to $750.

n Bonuses: Maximum enlistment bonuses would climb from $20,000 to $30,000 for active duty and from $10,000 to $15,000 for reserve. The ceiling on active reenlistment bonuses would jump from $60,000 to $90,000
n Death benefits: Gains enacted as part the Emergency Supplemental Wartime Appropriations Act would be made permanent. They include the lump sum death gratuity of $100,000, versus $12,400, if a member dies in combat, a combat zone or during combat-related training. This and a special $150,000 gratuity tied to Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance would be paid retroactively for combat-related deaths back to Oct. 7, 2001.

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