Several House panels on Wednesday began rolling out their first wave of proposals for the next defense policy plan with aims to boost military pay, benefits, innovation efforts, weapons and equipment.
The proposals, slated to be discussed before several House Armed Services Committee subpanels on Thursday, include the highest military pay raise in nearly a decade, a boost to end-strength across all the services, an extension to special pay and bonuses for servicemembers and new ships, planes and other acquisitions.
The effort appears to build on new momentum to grow the size and might of the military primarily in response to China and Russia’s growing military capabilities as laid out in President Donald Trump’s budget request for the Pentagon issued earlier this year.
“Our military remains capable, but our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare – air, land, sea, space, and cyber,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday in filed remarks before a closed House panel hearing. “The combination of rapidly changing technology, the negative impact on military readiness resulting from the longest continuous period of combat in our nation’s history, and a prolonged period of unpredictable and insufficient funding, created an overstretched and under-resourced military.”
In recent weeks, the House Armed Services Committee, its subpanels and its Senate counterparts have held dozens of hearings to discuss the 2019 budget priorities for each of the branches as well as a wide-ranging list of challenges facing the military. The hearings play into the development of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which directs policy and spending plans for the Defense Department.
The proposals follow Trump’s February rollout of the Pentagon’s proposed budget for 2019, which asked for a hike in funding to $686.1 billion. Some experts said the effort was likely to get a receptive response on Capitol Hill, especially with a deal already in place to bust statutory spending limits and a Congress invested in military improvements during an election year.
The Pentagon’s 2019 proposed budget “requests the resources necessary to fulfill the [Defense] Department’s enduring mission to provide the combat-credible military forces needed to deter war and, if deterrence fails, win in the event of conflict,” Mattis said in the prepared remarks.
The Pentagon’s request for fiscal year 2019, which begins Oct. 1, sought an increase of more than 15,000 active-duty troops and investment in key modernization programs. Wednesday’s rollout showed House lawmakers are on board with that plan, so far.
The Pentagon’s budget also requested money to build 10 ships, including three guided-missile destroyers, two Virginia-class submarines and one Littoral Combat Ship. It also requested more than 400 new aircraft, including 77 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, 24 F/A-18E Super Hornet fighters, 60 AH-64 Apache helicopters and 68 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.
While final figures proposed under the House plan remain to be seen, there is already a push to go beyond the Pentagon’s request in some cases.
For example, the House Armed Services Committee subpanel on seapower and projection forces is weighing the purchase of three additional battle force ships, including one Ford-class aircraft carrier and two additional Littoral Combat Ships – up from the one requested by the Pentagon.
The panel, in its earliest proposal so far, also known as its “mark,” is also seeking a more aggressive schedule for the purchase of Virginia-class submarines, full funding for the B-21 Raider bomber program, among other efforts, said Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., chairman of the subpanel on seapower and projection forces.
“As Russia and China grow their naval presence, it is absolutely critical that we continue to invest in and rebuild our Navy,” Wittman said Wednesday in a statement. “To achieve distributed lethality, we must provide the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force the tools and resources they need to deter our adversaries, support our allies, and respond to threats around the globe, I believe this mark does that.”
The budget plans would also ignite the Pentagon’s rebuild of its nuclear infrastructure, which it is projected to do in the Nuclear Posture Review released this month.
Also, under plans so far, troops would get a 2.6 percent pay hike, the largest in 9 years.
Military budgets for the last two years have “provided the funding needed to address immediate readiness shortfalls and accelerate modernization programs in a sustained effort to solidify our competitive advantage,” Mattis said. The proposed 2019 “budget is affordable and will continue to enhance U.S. military capabilities, but the budget can only be fully effective if passed on time.”
This week’s effort sets the tone for a long debate ahead, marking the earliest stages of an arduous process for Congress to reach a deal on the annual defense policy plan.
The full House Armed Services Committee is expected to vote on its proposed defense policy plan, H.R. 5515, as early as May 9. Its Senate counterpart is expected to start its markup process in late May.
Once those key committees push out their proposals, it’s up to the full chambers to proceed on the plan before reaching a deal that could be sent to the president’s desk for his signature.
The process is moving faster this year, and in a more orderly fashion, than compared to last year. In 2017, committees weren’t undertaking the mark-up processes until June.
Among its proposals, the House military personnel subpanel said it is considering a plan to give the services a new recruiting edge against the private sector by expanding its constructive service credit program, which determines rank and grade, to count time for advanced education, experience and training. It is also considering making permanent the Career Intermission Program, which allows servicemembers to take a break from active service to pursue personal interests, family needs, education or career opportunities, the committee said in a summary.
It is also considering an effort to enhance ongoing reforms of the Military Health System and require the defense secretary’s review of the Defense Health Agency’s ability to deliver mental health care services as well as research efforts relating to brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Also among the proposals: an overhaul of the Transition Assistance Program that provides assistance to servicemembers entering civilian life.
The plan would also would require the Defense Department to establish a centralized oversight plan to ensure criminal data for servicemembers it reported to the FBI. The effort comes in light of a Texas church shooting involving a former Air Force servicemember. Had his criminal record been reported by military officials, it might have averted his purchase of weapons.
Lawmakers are also mulling plans to expand efforts to respond to and combat sexual misconduct, such as expediting the transfer process for sexual-assault victims and requiring a new oversight plan for implementation of a new harassment prevention and response policy. For example, it could let a victim transfer between military academies.
“The option would be up to the member,” a committee aide said. “It allows that intra-academy transfer to happen, which was not allowed before.”
But there’s plenty of differences to hammer out in the proposals.
For example, dozens of House Democrats said this week that they would fight an effort to use the defense policy bill to divert public school funding for military families to private schools instead. In letters to the chairpersons of two key committees, more than 40 House Democrats said Tuesday that they would oppose the Education Savings Accounts For Military Families Act or any school voucher or privatization effort from being included in the NDAA.
As of Wednesday, the effort wasn’t included in the latest draft of the defense policy bill, but could be added as an amendment in future debate, a House Armed Services Committee aide said.
Also, a controversial proposal by Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the Armed Services committee, to cut 25 percent in spending from dozens of Defense Department agencies will likely be considered before his panel during the May 9 session.
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