LEGISLATIVE DIVISION UPDATE
LEGISLATIVE DIVISION UPDATE
Mar 29, 2017
LEGISLATIVE DIVISION UPDATE
White House FY18 Budget
President Trump formally released his 53-page "America First" spending plan for fiscal 2018 Thursday morning calling for sharp increases in defense, homeland security, and veterans' health care, as well as many tough offsetting cuts in government departments, agencies and programs across a wide spectrum. It's important to note that Congress ultimately approves the federal budget. However, the White House's budget proposal demonstrates the hierarchy of priorities it has for federal agencies and programs in the years to come.
In seeking to make good on his campaign pledges to bulk up the military, destroy ISIS and other terrorist threats and crack down on millions of illegal immigrants, Trump is seeking a $54 billion increase for the Department of Defense and billions more for border security and construction of a wall. At the same time, Trump would slash spending on foreign aid and gut scores of domestic programs and agencies. The State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Labor were among the hardest hit. Here is a list of five of the biggest winners and losers in Trump's budget blueprint:
1. Department of Defense – 10% increase. As part of Trump's call to rebuild the U.S. military from stem to stern, the president is seeking a base budget of $574 billion in fiscal 2018, up $53 billion from the current year. The administration is also seeking an additional $65 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations.
2. Department of Homeland Security – 6.8% increase. With a major focus on border security and cracking down and deporting illegal immigrants, Trump has requested $44.1 billion in the coming year, an increase of $2.8 billion. The department will hire 500 new border patrol agents and 1,000 new immigration and customs agents. It will also begin planning for construction of a nearly 2,000-mile wall along the southern border.
3. Department of Veterans Affairs – 6% increase. Trump complained that the Obama administration didn't do enough to help veterans receive adequate health care coverage and benefits. He is requesting $78.9 billion, or $4.4 billion more than the current level. He is also seeking $3.5 billion to fund the Veterans Choice Program to assure veterans can obtain prompt medical services.
4. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration – 11.3% increase. The Energy Department has major responsibility for the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile. Trump is seeking $13.9 billion, or $1.4 billion more than this year. The administration wants to revive the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada.
5. Social Security Administration –0.2% increase. Few tasks are more politically important than getting out Social Security checks on time. But Trump's budget is so tight outside of spending on national security and defense matters that the Social Security Administration was lucky to escape with a minuscule increase. The president has requested $9.3 billion, just a fraction more than this year's spending level.
1. Environmental Protection Agency – 31% decrease. Trump campaigned vowing to dismantle the EPA and its climate change regulations that have adversely impacted the coal industry and energy production. The EPA is being hammered more than any other agency and would receive only $5.7 billion, down $2.6 billion from this year. Trump would eliminate more than 50 programs and 3,200 jobs.
2. Department of State and USAID – 29% decrease. The administration insists that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shouldn't take it personally, but it may be hard for the former ExxonMobil CEO to swallow this humiliating cut. The White House budget office says the lion's share of the cuts will be in foreign aid, with only a small part related to diplomacy. But there would also be sharp reductions in UN peacekeeping activities and climate change programs. Trump is asking for $25.6 billion, down $10.1 billion from this year.
3. Department of Agriculture – 21% decrease. Looks like farmers aren't among Trump's favorites. The president has requested $17.9 billion, down $4.7 billion this year.
4. Department of Health and Human Services—18% decrease. HHS is in the cross hairs of the Trump administration because it has been responsible for running the Obamacare program and other health care policies. Trump requested $69 billion, down $15.1 billion from this year. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) which is part of HHS would lose $5.8 billion for research grants.
5. Department of Housing and Urban Development – 13.2% decrease. Trump repeatedly voiced concern about the plight of blacks in decaying and crime-ridden urban areas, but that wasn't reflected in his budget request that would result in deep cuts in housing vouchers and community development programs. Trump requested $40.7 billion, down $6.2 billion of this year.
Congress is busy these days, churning and arguing. What they eventually accomplish remains to be seen.
The American Health Care Act (AHCA) is the Republicans' attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare), within the constraints placed by reconciliation. However, it is far from popular even within the Republican Party. After much arm twisting and leadership promises of eventual changes, the bill is now teed up for consideration in the House Rules Committee next week. However, in the last committee to report it out, the House Budget Committee, all three members of the House Freedom Caucus (the most conservative Republican members) joined the Democrats in voting against the bill. If that trend holds on the House floor, the bill is in real trouble. Regardless, several Republican and Democratic Senators have already issued warnings that, as written, the AHCA has no chance on their side of the Hill. Thursday afternoon, several hours after the Budget Committee vote, White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters that they are "working with" Congress "to make improvements."
On Thursday, the White House released its FY17 supplemental spending request for DoD and national security funds, and a blueprint for the FY18 budget request. A fuller budget, including policy reforms addressing things such as taxes and entitlement programs and the national deficit, will be released in May. At Thursday's press conference, the White House would not address the President's campaign promise to eliminate the national deficit in eight years.
The DoD supplement request includes $24.9 billion in additional base budget spending and $5.1 billion in overseas contingency operations (OCO) spending. While this is a good attempt at remaining "pure" in how OCO is used, this means that the Budget Control Act (BCA) spending caps will be exceeded. The White House submission does not include enough offsets within DoD and across non-Defense discretionary spending (NDD) to fully account for the additional money requested. It is highly unlikely that Congress will suddenly manage to pass legislation to make that happen, either. House Armed Services Committee (HASC) chairman Rep. Thornberry (R-TX) told reporters Thursday afternoon that he does not care how the money is labeled; he just wants to pass something with more money to rebuild the military's readiness.
In the FY18 spending request, the Administration continues its attack on everything non-military or border control. The State Department alone would face a 30% reduction in funding. This goes along with the Administration's description of the budget as supporting hard power as opposed to soft power; in other words, diplomacy loses out to weapons systems. In all, 19 different domestic agencies, primarily in State and in the arts, would cease to exist under the proposed budget. The Department of Veterans Affairs would see a 6% bump in funding, though some lawmakers are beginning to balk at continuing to increase funding for that Department as overall budgets get tighter and tighter.
In a nutshell, lawmakers' reception of both spending requests were less than enthusiastic. While they will take the President's priorities into account, the final result is unlikely to bear much resemblance to what was submitted this week.
Next week in Congress
The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense will start its FY18 budget cycle hearings next week. Secretary of Defense Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford are scheduled to appear.
In the House, HASC chairman Rep. Thornberry (R-TX) highlighted this week's subcommittee hearing on the use of propaganda and disinformation by other countries, especially Russia, China and Iran. Thornberry said that this kind of hybrid warfare is increasingly important, and the committee will be working to highlight this. Next week, the full committee will hold a hearing on other aspects of these activities. On Friday of this week, the committee will be holding a roundtable with private sector stakeholders on various cyber issues.
Marine Corps photo sharing scandal
The Senate Armed Services Committee this week held the first public hearing on the Marines United photo sharing scandal. Marine Corps leadership joined the Senators in denouncing this behavior. General Neller told the Senators that, of the 30,000 people associated with Marines United overall, only about 500 appear to have participated on the page with the photos. He said that NCIS continues to investigate, and those who have been victimized are asked to come forward to receive help and to pursue a claim.
Marine Corps leadership is well aware that the photos have been moved to another website, and that those administrators are basically taunting authorities to find and prosecute them. Upon learning that one former Marine has published his picture and his discharge papers in defiance, Sen. Graham (R-SC) proclaimed that "we should make him famous" by announcing his name in public.
Quietly, lawmakers are coming to the assumption that this behavior is not limited to the Marine Corps. The HASC will be holding a hearing next week on military social media policies in general.
In the meantime, some lawmakers who were on the fence about removing the chain of command from sexually-oriented offenses are beginning to re-think their position. Senators Gillibrand (D-NY) and McCaskill (D-MO) indicated during the SASC hearing that they are definitely considering new changes to the UCMJ to address cyber activity in this arena.
After receiving a closed briefing from Naval investigators and Marine Corps leaders, HASC chairman Rep. Thornberry (R-TX) expressed confidence that those leaders are "willing to own the problem" and "are resolved to fix it." That said, he also said that he is "not convinced" that the Services "fully have their arms around" these problems.
Sexual assault in the military
This week, DoD released its most recent report on sexual assault within the military. A key finding is that there is an uptick in reports among cadets at both West Point and the Naval Academy.
Possibly just as problematic: the day after it was released, Thornberry and HASC staffers were completely unaware that the report had been released. When reporters informed them of its existence (and forwarded the report to them), HASC staffers noted that this is the kind of thing happening with the lack of any real legislative affairs staffing at the Pentagon right now.
New military monuments
After several years of bipartisan Congressional efforts, a proposed monument to honor the nearly 5,000 helicopter pilots and crewmembers killed in the Vietnam War moved forward this week. The Secretary of the Army has agreed to plans to place a small monument near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association (VHPA), which has been key in these efforts, will pay for construction and installation costs. The memorial will go near the VHPA-dedicated tree in Arlington Cemetery.
Quietly, the House passed a bill this week authorizing the placement of a memorial to those who participated in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield. That memorial would be somewhere on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The Senate passed the same bill on March 8. It is now up to the President to sign it.
VA presumption of service for Camp Lejeune water contamination
On Tuesday, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) published regulations to establish a presumption of service connection for eight diseases associated with exposure to contaminants in the Camp Lejeune water supply from 1953 through 1987. Under the new rule, any active duty or reserve component service member who was at Camp Lejeune for a total of 30 days between August 1, 1953 and the end of 1987 and who is suffering from eight conditions would be presumed to have a service connected illness for which the VA is responsible for providing care. The eight conditions are adult leukemia; aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndrome; bladder cancer; kidney cancer; liver cancer; multiple myeloma; non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and Parkinson's disease.
LEGISLATIVE DIVISION UPDATES
On March 15, Assistant Director Warren Goldstein attended a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing entitled "GAO's High Risk List and the Veterans Health Administration." The purpose of the hearing was to examine what the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is doing to get off the high risk list compiled by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). VHA landed on the GAO high risk list two years ago, and has made only limited progress in getting off of the list. Every 2 years at the start of a new Congress, GAO calls attention to agencies and program areas that are high risk due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or at most in need of transformation.
On March 16, Director Matthew Shuman, along with Assistant Director Jeff Steele, met with a staffer with Veterans Coalition for Common Sense, a group established by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who became an gun-violence prevention activist after being shot. Discussed was a bill on the House floor that day, which later passed: the Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act. As it now works, veterans deemed "mentally incompetent" by the VA are placed on the list of individuals who could be denied weapons permits. Representative Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), who sponsored the bill and is chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said Thursday on the chamber floor that the current practice "deprives veterans of their constitutional rights without due process of law." He continued, "Veterans who fought to defend the Constitution should also be allowed the rights to protect it." The American Legion supports this legislation, which if it also passes the Senate and the president signs it into law, would enable the FBI to retroactively delete the records of more than 174,000 veterans who are mentally unable to manage their finances and are blocked by the National Instant Criminal Background Checks System (NICS) from purchasing firearms. The NICS is the national database that gun sellers are required to check before selling a firearm.
Letters of Support
On March 10, The American Legion sent a letter of support to Sen. Jon Tester (MT), giving our organization's support for draft legislation entitled the CHAMPVA Children's Protection Act of 2017. The measure would, as currently written, increase the maximum eligibility age from 23 to 26 for certain dependent children of veterans to receive medical care under the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which would be in accordance with the provisions of Public Law 111-148, the "Patient Protection and Affordability Care Act."
Also on March 10, The American Legion sent a letter of support to Sen. Bill Nelson (FL), giving our organization's support for S. 339, the Military Widows Tax Elimination Act of 2017. The bill would, as currently written, amend Title 10, United States Code, to repeal the requirement for reduction of survivor annuities under the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) for military spouses to offset the receipt of veterans dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC).
The American Legion on March 10 sent a letter of support to Sen. Jon Tester (MT), giving our organization's support for draft legislation entitled Grow Our Own Directive: Physician Assistant Employment and Education Act. The measure would, as currently written, require that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs carry out a pilot program to provide educational assistance to certain former servicemembers for education and training as physician assistants for the purpose of being employed at the VA.
Update on Flag Amendment Bill
The end of the 114th Congress signaled that House Joint Resolution (H.J. Res.) 9 and Senate Joint Resolution (S.J. Res.) 21 – proposed constitutional amendment to protect the American flag from physical desecration – expired. Though garnering some support in their respective chambers, neither measure emerged from the House or Senate Judiciary committees for an up-or-down vote in either chamber.
As a result, The American Legion is continuing its efforts to protect the American flag in the 115th Congress. As he did in the previous Congress, Rep. Steve Womack (AR) re-introduced a flag protection constitutional amendment, House Joint Resolution (H.J. Res.) 61, with 13 original co-sponsors. He is currently contacting other Members of the House seeking additional co-sponsors. With the House resolution now introduced, a member of the Senate will be sought to introduce a companion measure in that chamber.
"We, The People" still feel it is the right thing to do.