By Leo Shane III
WASHINGTON — After a long, lurching journey, the annual defense authorization bill appears poised to become law in the next few days. The final version is a stripped-down measure of sweeping issues lawmakers hoped to tackle, but still contains plenty of interest for servicemembers and their families.
After a year of legislative inaction highlighted by an October government shutdown, this looked like it could be the year that Congress’s streak of 51 consecutive years with a defense authorization bill could be broken. But lawmakers once again showed that military issues are one of only a few that transcend partisan bickering.
Winner: Military bases
The final defense bill includes about $1.3 billion more for base operations and maintenance funds than the Defense Department requested. It also once staves off Pentagon plans for another round of base closings, an idea that gained little support on Capitol Hill.
Winner: Sex assault prosecutions
The massive overhaul of the military justice system that many advocates wanted isn’t in the final legislation, but the bill does include a host of new provisions designed to protect military sex assault victims. Among them: removing commanders ability to overturn jury convictions, requiring a dishonorable discharge for sex assault offenders and more legal assistance for victims.
Winner: A-10 enthusiasts
Lawmakers included language blocking any Air Force plans to retire the Warthog. Lawmakers said the goal is “to provide breathing space for Congress” to review the service’s long-term aircraft plans and ensure that budget cuts aren’t eroding mission capabilities.
Loser: Troops’ paychecks
Yes, the authorization bill includes a 1 percent pay raise next year, but that’s lower than inflation and the lowest since the start of the all-volunteer force. The Pentagon has floated the idea of even lower pay raises in years to come.
Loser: Medical bill collectors
Congress again rejected Pentagon plans for Tricare fee increases for some military retirees. Defense Department planners have insisted they’re needed to help rein in rising medical care costs, but veterans groups have opposed the idea.
Loser: Military fashion
The defense bill mandates the Defense Department adopt “a common combat and camouflage utility uniform,” following complaints that too much money was being spent developing different styles for each service. Some exceptions will be allowed, but expect more uniform uniformity.
Loser: Littoral combat ship
Congress wants more oversight in the embattled ship building program, and will fence off some funding of new ships until the Pentagon undergoes new reviews. But it won’t halt any efforts on ships in the construction pipeline.