Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ensure Quality Education for Our Vets

Recently ROA attended two events on Capitol Hill regarding education benefits for veterans and service members who attend for profit colleges. Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA), Jim Webb (D-VA), and Tom Carper (D-DE) held a press conference in the morning to unveil new data tracking which colleges are taking in the most post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits. Following the announcement, Senator Carper chaired a hearing of the Senate HSGAC Subcommittee on Federal Finance Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security on improving educational benefits for our military and veterans. During this hearing, panels testified on potential changes to the Department of Defense’s policy governing military tuition assistance to help service members and veterans be more informed in making decisions about where and how to use their education benefits.

ROA responded to these developments by submitting its positions to the committee. Read ROA's response.

ROA has long been a staunch advocate for appropriately extending and managing education benefits for service members. In the last year alone ROA has advocated for the following positions:
  • Include U.S. Public Health Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Corps members in the post–9/11 GI Bill.
  • Include Title 32 AGR and Title 14 eligibility for the post–9/11 GI Bill.
  • Adopt Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) Ch. 30, 38 USC program eligibility rules for non-degree vocational, on-the-job training, apprenticeship, and flight training programs to post–9/11 GI Bill.
  • Exempt GI Bill earned benefit from being considered income in need-based aid calculations.
  • Develop a standard nationwide payment system for private schools.
  • Re-examine qualification basis for Yellow Ribbon Program, rather than first-come first-served.
    ---Enact Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) and Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) protections for mobilized Guard and Reserve students, granting academic leaves of absence, protecting academic standing, and guaranteeing refunds. Adjust interest rates on federal student loans of mobilized reservists when the market rate drops below 6 percent.
  • Increase Montgomery GI Bill–Selected Reserve (MGIB–SR) to 47 percent of MGIB–Active.
  • Include four-year reenlistment contracts to qualify for MGIB–SR.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

White House Unveils Deficit Reduction Plan: ROA Reacts

On September 19, President Obama unveiled his plan for economic growth and deficit reduction. Part of the President’s plan, which the White House asserts will fully fund the Americans Job Act, were several suggested changes to the cost and structure of military retirement benefits. The President's plan calls for the following:

1) Introducing “modest” annual fees for TRICARE For Life, beginning with a $200 annual fee in FY 2013 and would be increased annually thereafter.

2) Adjusting TRICARE pharmacy co-payments to closer parity with Federal employee health plans by shifting retail pharmacy from dollar co-payments to a percentage co-payments, starting at 10 percent for generic drugs and increasing to 20 percent. Brand name and non-formulary drugs would start with a 15 percent copayment and would rise to 30 percent over time. Mail order generics would be free, but brand drugs would increase a $20 dollars co-payment and $35 for non-formulary, with each increasing to a $40 co-payment.

3) Establishing a commission to modernize military retirement benefits. Recommendation would follow a BRAC process, where the Congress could either accept or reject the suggested changes.

ROA responded by sending the White House its concerns over these recommendations, and later participated in a White House teleconference intended to detail these recommendations. Let’s just say that the military and veterans associations that participated in the call did not receive these recommendations warmly.

It should be remembered that the White House may send legislation to Capitol Hill, but Congress must still accept these suggestions and pass them into law, before any change will occur. So while these suggestions should spark the interest of all military retirees, they are far from certain.

ROA will work to sustain the current benefits as outlined National Resolution 10-29 . We will continue to advocate diligently against dangerous cuts to defense spending as well as any cost saving proposals which fail to adequately compensate or otherwise provide for the sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform and the burdens borne by their families. As ROA learns more, information will be shared with ROA membership.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Help Wanted: Legislative Initiatives to Employ Veterans

Unemployment for returning veterans is a serious issue facing service members, and Congress is beginning to pay attention as these unemployment rates climb higher than the general population’s. In August the Department of Labor reported a 30 percent unemployment rate for veterans between the ages of 18 to 24 years old, many of whom are Guard and Reserve members. The White House and Congressional leadership from both parties are seeking to address the problem. This last week saw an increase in activity on veterans’ employment, and the Reserve Officers Association was invited to participate in three different events on the issue.

On Monday, ROA attended a Veterans Employment Summit hosted by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. This event brought together representatives from 28 companies from across the United States to share practices, suggestions for, and issues with hiring veterans. These companies, whose representation included Wal-Mart, Booz Allen Hamilton, Sears, and Edison Electric, among others, discussed their desire to hire veterans, as well as the struggles and successes they have found in doing so.

The consensus among the organizations represented was that hiring veterans is an important and valuable practice. A veteran’s job skills, work-ethic, and commitment to service are desirable traits to these companies and many have already begun developing practices to more easily recruit and retain these employees. Enthusiasm among the companies for hiring veterans was in no short supply at the summit, but participants did use the time to voice their concerns and struggles with successfully hiring veterans. Companies found it difficult to find veteran resumes on their online databases, and some also found that veteran job candidates in some cases choose to not include their military service on resumes. In keeping with those concerns, companies found that there is some difficulty among veterans and employers in translating military service experience into practical job skills that are desirable in the work force. Veterans, though they may have the skills from military service to be successful in a certain employment position find it difficult to translate those skills to a resume, while employers have the same difficulty translating the skills from military experience that is included on a resume.

ROA also participated in a White House conference call Wednesday on the Veterans Hiring Initiative and the American Jobs Act. The White House invited a number of military service organizations and non-profit organizations who might be hiring to discuss the elements of veteran job initiatives in the President’s Job Act. The bill provides a tax credit of $2,400 for companies hiring veterans who have been unemployed for more than four weeks. The credit increases to $5,600 if the veteran has been unemployed over six months. Employers, who hire a wounded warrior who has been unemployed for at least 6 months and has a service-connected disability, are eligible for a tax credit that doubles from $4,800 to $9,600.

While on the call, ROA Legislative Director, CAPT Marshall Hanson, USNR (ret.) questioned White House staffers on how they would define “veteran” for the purpose of employment benefits in the President’s jobs bill. Staffers answered that the administration would remain as currently in the IRS Code, unless Congress chooses how to redefine “veteran” in the new bill. IRS Code defines an unemployed veteran for this tax credit as one who:

  • Has been discharged or released from active duty in the US. Armed Forces at any time during the 5-year period ending on the hiring date

  • Received unemployment compensation under state or federal law for at least 4 weeks during the 1-year period ending on the hiring date.

To be considered a veteran, the applicant must have served on active duty (not including training) in the Armed Forces of the United States for more than 180 days or have been discharged or released from active duty for a service connected disability.

While ROA worked with Senate offices on the original tax credit legislation that the President now wants to amend, we have also advocated for a broader definition of veteran.

To round out the week, ROA was invited to participate in a round table discussion with the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee to discuss job creation, transition to civilian life, women veterans, and the G.I. Bill. The meeting was lead by Senator Mark Begich (Alaska) and was attended by a number of Veterans Services Organizations. Senators Jon Tester (Mont.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) also joined the meeting. Senators encouraged organizational support of the President’s job act.

At this meeting, organizations were allowed to express their concerns over veterans’ employment, made suggestions to the committee for aspects of legislation to assist in employing veterans, and challenged Congress to make a veterans employment bill the first jobs bill of the 112th Congress. Existing Senate legislation was highlighted by groups, the most frequent being mentioned was S. 951, Hiring Heroes Act of 2011, introduced by Senator Patty Murray (Wash.) ROA followed up comments with a written statement.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

HASC Chairman Defends Defense

In light of the looming budget cuts to the Department of Defense (DoD), Republican legislators are speaking up to advocate against further, likely disastrous cuts to DoD. This past Monday, ROA attended an event at the American Enterprise Institute that featured Congressman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Along with echoing the messages Republican legislators have been spreading for weeks, Congressman McKeon focused on the under-funded and under-equipped status of our military as it stands today. The Congressman was pointed in underscoring not only the devastating impact these cuts represent for the success of current operations, but on the United States’ standing as a global power.

Mr. McKeon referenced a laundry list of issues already facing our armed forces—troops being required to serve six or seven deployments, weapons and equipment programs being cut dramatically and an unstable atmosphere in the Middle East. McKeon noted that DoD has been forced to operate amidst the austerity demanded by having become, what he called the Obama administration’s “favorite target” for budget cuts in an already woeful economy.

He argued, “[Cutting defense] is not how you win the war…and it’s absolutely not the way to pay off the debt.”

Congressman McKeon fervently warned against cuts to defense at a time when the United States is engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. McKeon took special exception to the scale of these defense cuts during a time when the domestic discretionary spending budget has actually grown. He asserted that recent cuts, even without considering current proposals, have already hampered DoD operational capacity. Cuts already made to DoD, he argues, aren’t just keeping the U.S. from updating its military, “they’re preventing us from keeping our current fleet afloat.”

Even more worrisome to the Congressman is that the triggers contained in the Budget Control Act, which would result from the super committee’s failure to produce and/or pass a budget reduction plan by the end of the year, would cut 50% of the $1.2 trillion in budget reduction required from the Department of Defense, even though the DoD budget only accounts for about 20% of federal spending. He believes this is a pre-election year effort by the administration and Congressional Democrats to force Republicans to choose between raising taxes or gutting defense.

The Congressional supercommittee has already begun preliminary meetings and is expected to begin debate over a budget reduction plan over the next few weeks. During that time, the Reserve Officers Association will remain diligent in its defense of the military. ROA is committed to preserving the strength of our armed forces as a means to ensure our national security. To that end, ROA will continue to advocate against efforts to downgrade DoD operability as a means to deficit reduction.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Profiles in Parsimony

As the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction continues to deliberate on a plan to reduce the federal budget, the personalities and backgrounds of the committee’s members could be extremely influential. Following is a brief profile of all twelve members of this congressional “Super Committee.” Aside from representing their respective parties, many of these committee members also represent constituencies made up of service members and Department of Defense installations. The panel's first full meeting is scheduled for September 13.

Congressman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Co-Chair of the “Super Committee,” has been in Congress since 2003 and currently sits as Vice-Chairman on the House Financial Services Committee. Rep. Hensarling has been described as a “financial hawk,” and his strong fiscally conservative stance suggests he will oppose tax hikes and support cutting entitlement spending.

Also appointed to the committee is Congressman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who has represented southwest Michigan in the House of Representatives since 1987. Congressman Upton serves as Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in the 112th Congress. Formally nicknamed the “Young Slasher” for his push for reduced spending early in his career, Upton has a reputation for being tough on entitlement programs and big-budget federal spending.

John Boehner’s third House Republican pick for the Super Committee is another from the Great Lakes State, Congressman Dave Camp (R-Mich.). Congressman Camp is Chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, which handles legislation dealing with tax policy as well as entitlement programs.

Appointed to the committee by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is Congressman James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.). Congressman Clyburn, a staunch advocate for entitlement programs, has served in the house since 1993. Congressman Clyburn is the number 3 Democrat in the House and serves as Democratic Leadership Liaison to the House Appropriations Committee.

Congresswoman Pelosi also appointed Congressman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), who gained his seat in Congress in 2003. Congressman Becerra serves on the House Committee on Ways and Means and serves as Vice Chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

The final House member on the Super Committee is Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). Congressman Van Hollen was Majority Leader of the Maryland State Senate before being elected to Congress in 2002, and is the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appointed Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a third-term senator who served four terms in the House to his election to the Senate. Senator Kyl serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over an array of topics from trade and commerce to constitutional amendments. Senator Kyl represents the State of Arizona, which is home to seven military installations.

McConnell also selected Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a freshman senator who spent twelve years in the House. Senator Portman serves on the Senate Budget Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee. Ohio is home to two military installations.

Another freshman senator representing Senate Republicans is Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who serves on the Senate Budget Committee, the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee. Senator Toomey represents Pennsylvania’s four military installations.

Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has been appointed to the Super Committee by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Senator Baucus chairs the Senate Finance Committee, and serves on the Agriculture, and the Environment and Public Works Committees. Senator Baucus was influential in the passage of the Affordable Care Act and will likely be a strong advocate for Medicare and Medicaid. He also represents one military installation.

Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) was also appointed to the Super Committee. Senator Kerry has served in Congress since 1984. He currently serves on the Senate Finance Committee, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and chairs the Senate Foreign Committee. Senator Kerry served in the U.S. Navy from 1966-1970 and served two tours in Vietnam. He is a supporter of Medicare and Medicaid, and represents six military installations in Massachusetts.

Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) was appointed Co- Chair of the Super Committee. Senator Murray was elected to the Senate in 1992 and chairs the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and sits on the Committee on the budget, among others. She is also the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Senator Murray represents six military installations in the state of Washington.