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House votes to protect military income

Tom Philpott: Military update

A House panel shaping its version of the 2005 defense authorization bill approved new income protection for mobilized Reserve and National Guard members, and a provision to phase out, starting in 2009, the sharp drop in military survivor benefits that occurs at age 62.

The bill also would support a 3.5 percent military pay raise next January — the sixth consecutive annual raise to exceed wage growth in the private sector — and would boost active duty force strength by 39,000 over three years, adding 30,000 soldiers and 9,000 Marines to help relieve strain from the extraordinary pace of wartime operations since 9/11.

The Total Force Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday unveiled these and more quality-of-life initiatives during its mark up of a new defense bill. Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., subcommittee chairman, said the centerpiece is “the most significant reshaping of reserve enlistment and retention incentive bonuses and pays in years.”

Highlights for Reserve and National Guard personnel include:

REVISED BONUSES — Reserve bonus and incentive authorities would be made identical to those for active duty members so mobilized reservists don’t see a pay disparity when serving alongside members with identical rank and job specialty. This would mean expansion to Reserve personnel of critical skill retention bonuses, officer accession bonuses, and conversion incentives to address hard-to-fill job skills.

INCOME REPLACEMENT — Reserve component members mobilized involuntarily could receive new extra pay, of $50 to $3000 a month, to cover average monthly income losses when away for lengthy periods from civilian jobs. Replacement income wouldn’t start until a reservist had 12 continuous months on active duty, or 18 months’ active duty during the previous 60 months, or for any month a member is mobilized within six months of a previous active duty tour. This should put an extra $57 million in member pockets its first year. The cost presumably would encourage the services not to keep members mobilized so long that they qualify for the new pay.

MORE FULL-TIME SUPPORT — Reserve units would see slots for full-time support personnel rise by 2.1 percent and the number of military technicians supporting reserve units by 3.3 percent.

RESERVE HEALTH CARE — The House bill would increase healthcare spending by $300 million in 2005 by making permanent two temporary gains in Reserve healthcare access approved last year. One opened TRICARE to Reserve and Guard members 90 days before the date they are to report for active duty. Another provides reserve component personnel up to 180 days of TRICARE coverage following separation from active duty.

RESERVE TRICARE TEST — The Defense Department would extend by three years a test of providing opening TRICARE to drilling reservists who are unemployed or lack employer-sponsored healthcare, to show truly whether better access to care improved medical readiness, recruiting and retention.

These initiatives, McHugh said, “recognize the new realities of reserve component service.”

McHugh also expressed pride that his panel was “taking the first meaningful step” toward ending the drop in Survivor Benefit Plan payments at age 62. Since SBP began in 1972, he said, benefits have fallen from 55 percent of a retiree’s covered annuity down to as low as 35 percent.

This drop would be phased out by October 2014 under the subcommittee’s plan. But phase out wouldn’t begin until October 2009. McHugh conceded this disappoints SBP reform advocates. No money could be found to help 270,000 older SBP beneficiaries sooner without tapping into current retirement funding. So the schedule to raise SBP benefits must fall outside the scope of Congress’ five-year budget plan.

On a straight party line vote, the subcommittee’s eight Republicans rejected an amendment from Rep. Vic Snyder, ranking Democrat from Arkansas, to begin phasing in higher SBP benefits in October 2005. McHugh and Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., argued that the five-year unfunded cost of $498 million would trigger a “point of order” challenge on the House floor, threatening the entire defense bill and making committee work appear irrelevant.

All six Democrats supported Snyder’s amendment and his argument that once the provision is before the full committee, budget offsets to pay it might be found. Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., warned that a vote on Snyder’s amendment would be “political."He urged Snyder to withdraw it instead.

An angry Snyder took strong exception to Hayes assigning political motives to the amendment. But after losing a voice vote, Snyder asked that votes be recorded so that, presumably, Republicans like Hayes would be on record opposing phase out of the age-62 SBP reduction starting in 2005.

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

[email protected]