In the News
December 1, 2016
By Carl Prine
The House of Representatives on Friday overwhelmingly approved a compromise spending package designed to expand the size of the military, increase pay for troops and aid California National Guardsmen who have been battling government efforts to recoup signing bonuses awarded during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The 375-34 vote in favor of the $619 billion National Defense Authorization Act followed intense, bipartisan talks between House and Senate leaders to overcome a threatened veto by President Barack Obama, who has expressed concern about signing a bill that would bust the federal budget and squish civilian entitlement spending.
Lawmakers also stripped out some controversial measures in the defense bill, including a push to force women to register for a potential draft and legislative language that some critics believed would be used to let military contractors discriminate against homosexual workers.
“The battles we were going to have between the Republican Congress and President Obama went away when the majority realized that there was no point in fighting him when they could wait a few months for a President (Donald) Trump” to jointly pursue certain goals with them, said Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, a member of the select bipartisan committee that brokered the compromise deal.
During the past two years, Guard leaders in Sacramento have clawed back $22 million in re-enlistment incentives illegally paid to soldiers in the mid-2000s.
Although investigators found several cases of Guard wrongdoing — a paperwork clerk pleaded guilty to her role in a $15.2 million bonus-bilking scheme and three commissioned officers drew probation after fraud convictions — lawmakers said the vast majority of soldiers never intended to hoodwink the military.
Veterans advocates and many legislators have said these former soldiers are facing enormous pressure to repay the government up to tens of thousands of dollars, plus interest, when they likely lack the means.
The defense bill directs the military to waive the recouping of bonuses from soldiers who unwittingly accepted them. It also reimburses Guard members who were wrongly billed.
“The burden of this fraud and mismanagement never should have fallen on our service members who bravely signed up to serve our country more than a decade ago. This will fix that mistake and begin to make our veterans and their families whole again,” Peters said.
Chris Schnaubelt, a retired Army colonel who deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, said the legislation is “about as good as we can get for now.”
Schnaubelt, a Washington, D.C.- based political scientist at the RAND think tank and the 1st vice president of the National Guard Association of California, a nonprofit advocacy group, said one of the best parts of the bill is a requirement to inform credit agencies when a soldier’s bonus repayment has been forgiven.
News of the reforms thrilled Bajan Manalwalla, a retired intelligence officer who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. But when Congress returns from recess in 2017, he wants lawmakers to probe deeper into what he calls the “Guard’s Watergate.”
“They’re accusing us of fraud. Me, an officer with 26 years of honorable service, was accused of fraud with no evidence. They accused thousands of my fellow soldiers of the same thing,” said Manalwalla, who received a $6,000 bonus in 2005 and has been battling the Guard for the past two years over repaying it.
“Congress needs to hold hearings to investigate this scam to recover the bonuses. Do your jobs, Congress, and punish those who went after us,” Manalwalla said.
Peters said there’s bipartisan support in Congress for ensuring that the California bonus scandal “never happens again.”
Peters blocked an amendment that would have prevented the Pentagon from planning for global climate change and negotiated a land swap between the Port of San Diego and the Pentagon to help the seaside Navy Broadway Complex project move forward.
The bill sluices nearly $374 million to three Navy projects in Coronado, plus $154 million for Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.
Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego, wanted to fold into the spending bill measures that would exempt the military’s Basic Allowance for Housing — a central component of most troops' compensation — when determining eligibility for food stamps and 17 other federal food programs. But her measure couldn’t get past a legislative roadblock.
Davis, also a member of the House Armed Services Committee, is known for advocating for military families. She vowed to bring the legislation back in January, but remained pleased that other causes she championed will become law, including $25 million to recruit, train and retain female volunteers to the Afghan Security Forces.
Davis also made sure that the Pentagon will expand maternity leave for military members — 12 weeks after the birth of a child, six weeks after an adoption.
“For a lot of families, especially dual military families, we have wonderful people who sometimes feel like they have to leave because they believe that having a family isn’t what the military wants,” she said. “This is our way to say that we acknowledge the role of families by providing support to those in the military.”
To Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, a key House victory in the budget battle was the 2.1 percent pay hike for the troops. The highest raise in six years keeps pace with wage growth in the civilian sector but it had been opposed by both the White House and Senate.
The legislation also adds 1,000 soldiers, 3,000 Marines and 4,000 airmen after years of declining numbers.
Both projects will combine to cost $8.2 billion, which forced lawmakers to scrap plans to buy more strike fighters needed by the Navy, Marines and Air Force.
“In my opinion, it’s easier to build a plane than it is to make a warfighter,” said Hunter, a Marine combat veteran and an ardent Trump supporter who had been on the list for the Secretary of Defense slot before the president elect chose retired Marine Gen. James Mattis.
The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017 includes:
-- an extra $5.8 billion to fund operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Europe
-- full funding for Israel’s missile defense system
-- a cap on the size of the National Security Council at 200 staffers
-- a ban on both the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and transfers of terrorism suspects to the United States
-- a reauthorization of efforts to provide immigration help for Afghan translators who aided American troops and now want to come to the United States.