Military update: Panel OKs multiple military measures

By Tom Philpott: Syndicated columnist

Military people next January would get a 3.5 percent pay raise, under a compensation package voted Wednesday by the House Armed Services’ subcommittee on military personnel.

In shaping the personnel section of the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill, the subcommittee approved other initiatives to please health-care beneficiaries, surviving spouses and some disabled retirees forced from service short of 20 years by combat-related injuries.

The Senate will mark up its version of 2008 defense bill later this month, no doubt approving a somewhat different set of personnel initiatives. A House-Senate conference later will smooth out these differences.

Here are details of some things the House panel unanimously approved:

2008 pay raise — The 3.5 percent raise for next year would be the ninth straight set at least a half-percentage point above private sector wage growth as tracked by the government’s Employment Cost Index.

The Bush administration wanted to end the ECI-plus-a-half-percent raises with a 3 percent hike in 2008 to match average private sector raises. But breaking the pattern will be difficult politically during wartime, especially with a war that most lawmakers would end if they could.

TRICARE fees — Once again, the subcommittee has voted to block the administration’s plan for sharp increases in TRICARE enrollment fees, deductibles and pharmacy co-payments.  For fiscal 2008, Defense officials didn’t propose a new TRICARE fee-raising plan, as they had last year. But Snyder said they left a $2 billion “projected savings” hole in the TRICARE budget in anticipation that the department’s Task Force on the Future of Military Healthcare will send interim recommendations to Congress this month in time to be reviewed, approved and included in the 2008 budget.

CRSC expansion — Eligibility for Combat-Related Special Compensation would be expanded for the first time to benefit a limited number of Chapter 61 retirees forced by disabilities to leave service short of 20 years. The subcommittee provision would limit CRSC eligibility to those Chapter 61 retirees who served at least 15 years, were forced from service by combat-related injuries and have disability ratings of 60 percent or higher. The Military Officer’s Association of America estimates that about 10,000 might be eligible. The special CRSC payments would begin Oct. 1, 2008. Disabled retirees would have to apply for the benefit.
Survivor indemnity allowance — Surviving spouses unable to draw full survivor benefits because of the so-called SBP-DIC offset would begin to receive a new survivor indemnity allowance valued at up to $40 a month. It is touted as a first step toward eliminating the offset for 61,000 surviving spouses who see their Survivor Benefit Plan reduced, dollar for dollar, by amounts they receive in Dependency and Indemnity Compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The allowance would begin Oct. 1, 2008.

Active force increases — Active duty forces would increase by 46,500 over levels requested by the administration. Army strength would increase to 525,400 soldiers, or 36,000 more than requested. Marine Corps strength would climb to 189,000, a bump up of 9,000.  Air Force strength would be 329,563, or 963 above the administration’s request.  Navy strength would be 329,098, or 698 higher than the Navy sought.

Reserve GI bill — The subcommittee is taking a first step toward raising Reserve Montgomery GI Bill benefits by voting to transfer oversight for the program from the Department of Defense to the Department of Veterans Affairs where reserve benefits would be raised annually in lock step with the active duty GI Bill benefits.

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