Military families at heart of Senate bills aimed at improving DoD readiness

The “backbone” of the military is getting some added support, as lawmakers and Defense Department leaders pledged their efforts toward more geographic stability for families, and tax breaks for national guardsmen and reservists.

During a March 22 Senate appropriations defense subcommittee hearing, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said he is pushing for his Military Family Stability Act of 2017 for inclusion in the future National Defense Reauthorization Act of 2018, while Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said he planned to introduce legislation that would allow National Guard members and reservists to deduct travel expenses.

Blunt’s bill would provide military families with some flexibility around moving for an assignment, if the serviceman or servicewoman was willing to handle the expenses.

“I know both of you believe that families are the backbone of the military,” Blunt said to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who testified at the hearing.  “I’m hoping if we get that legislation in the bill again this time, that we’ll have the support of the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs. There’s no cost the way the bill is currently written. The person serving makes the decision that they can either find quarters available to a single individual as their family moves earlier, or they can find quarters similarly available if they move earlier or they could simply just decide it’s so important that my family be able to stay until my spouse’s job transitions properly, my kids finish this year of school, or the reverse of that.”

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Mattis said basic housing allowances did not make the bill budget neutral, and Defense would likely need legislative relief. But he said he was committed to getting that relief if that’s what it takes, “so we don’t have to run two different payments to the purse for maintaining two households.”

“I’m not certain why we need legislative relief,” Mattis said. “I’ve got the staff researching it now, but I’m in complete agreement with the program, it’s just how do we do it in a way that’s consistent with your view of budget neutral, and we will get there.”

“If that’s the kind of legislative relief you need, we’ll see that that happens,” Blunt said.

Daines said he was planning on introducing his Tax Relief for Guard and Reserve Training bill later that day, which would reimburse National Guard members and reservists traveling to and from their duty locations.

“Most are not reimbursed for the costs they incur, and are limited as to what they can claim as a business-related expense,” Daines said. “I think that’s flat-out wrong. Service members should not be taxed on money they spend to subsidize their own training.”

Daines said the legislation would allow the deduction of travel expenses including meals and lodging.

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Dunford said reservists and National guards members “do have a unique challenge.”

“I appreciate your interest in making sure that we can mitigate some of the consequences of those challenges,” Dunford said.

More damaging than the enemy

While both bills address the readiness of military families, readiness of the military was also a focus of the hearing, particularly how sequestration has impacted Defense.

“Is it fair to say sequestration has done a lot of damage to our military capability,” asked Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C).

“It has done more damage to our readiness, sir, than the enemies in our field,” Mattis said.

“It’s not only done damage to our readiness but I think it’s also been a very inefficient use of the resources that the taxpayers have given us,” Dunford said.

Sequestration would be triggered again if Congress does not lift the the budget caps of about $551 billion for 2017 to make room for a budget supplemental sent to Capitol Hill by the Trump administration.

The supplemental budget puts an extra $25 billion into the 2017 Defense Department base budget and $5 billion into an emergency wartime spending fund.

The supplemental would bring the proposed 2017 base budget up to $576 billion.

The House passed its version of the 2017 defense appropriations bill in early March; however, the Senate still has no plans to bring its version of the bill to the floor for a vote.

On the civilian side of the federal budget, Trump proposed $462 billion for non-Defense discretionary spending, which includes a range of cuts  — notably 28 percent from the State Department’s $38 billion budget.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) asked what the State Department cuts would mean for DoD, but Mattis said at that moment he couldn’t quantify what the specific programs being cut would mean for military operations.

“I work very closely with Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson … his foreign service officers are in our building helping us craft policy. It’s absolutely a team effort as we tie diplomacy and military means together,” Mattis said. “So when we walk into the national security staff meetings, State and Defense are aligned. It’s a critical team effort; we intend to keep it that way.”

Mattis also touted the “good … strong” relationship between DoD and the Coast Guard, which could also see non-Defense spending cuts in the 2018 budget.