By MOAA Government Relations Staff
With the distant sounds of sabers rattling from the borders of Ukraine and the Taiwan strait, the Senate passed the FY 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on Dec. 15 by a 88-11 vote. The importance of a strong national defense to deter conflict is notable by the increased appropriations despite the end of 20 years of war in Afghanistan.
The bill, which passed the House 363-70 on Dec. 7 and is en route to the president’s desk for signature, authorizes $768.2 billion – 5% increase from last year, keeping pace with Inflation – and is $25.1 billion more than requested by the president. Rising inflation, competing economic priorities, and a pandemic that continues to create new uncertainties and fears will make MOAA advocacy for our uniformed community more challenging in the coming years.
This NDAA did not follow the regular congressional process, where amendments are offered and voted on in each chamber before the bill proceeds to a joint conference committee and a final up-or-down vote in the House and Senate. This year, the Senate ran out of time and chose to accept the House-negotiated version to avoid a vote on amendments.
Negotiations occurred behind closed doors, unlike in previous years, leaving less opportunity for organizations like MOAA to influence lawmakers during the decision-making process. However, much of what is in the NDAA is supported by MOAA and The Military Coalition (TMC), a group of organizations representing nearly 5.5 million members of the greater uniformed services community.
What’s in the Bill?
Pay raise: A 2.7% raise for servicemembers keeps pace with the Employment Cost Index (ECI), but does not address the 2.6% gap behind ECI from previous years. The House Rules Committee asked the House Armed Services Committee to look for further increases in the next NDAA, given concerns over junior enlisted family financial problems.
Basic Needs Allowance (BNA): A version of the MOAA-supported BNA is included, but it is not the proposed automatic payment for junior military families falling within a band of the poverty line. The bill’s version places a bureaucratic burden on servicemembers and their families who often want to avoid the stigma of seeking help and the risk of losing a security clearance or damaging a career. It also does not address the use of the basic housing allowance when computing eligibility, a move which significantly reduces who may apply for support. More advocacy will be needed next year to support vulnerable families as some experts seek to cut personnel costs.
Enhanced parental leave: Primary and secondary caregivers for the birth, adoption, or long-term foster placement of a child will be authorized up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave. This is a significant increase for Navy and Marine Corps secondary caregivers, who currently only have two weeks of parental leave.
New leave category for bereavement: Servicemembers will have access to two weeks of bereavement leave following the death of an immediate family member. Those who have less than 30 days of leave will be provided the two weeks at no charge; those with a balance of over 30 days will be charged only to the point that their leave balance remains at 30 days.
Child care: This NDAA authorizes an expansion of the in-home child care pilot program, which is currently only available in five locations. Additional locations have not yet been identified. Additionally, the bill requires DoD to conduct safety inspections at all child development centers and develop a 10-year facility improvement plan for these centers.
Impact Aid: Federal Impact Aid provides financial assistance to local school districts that have lost property tax revenue due to the presence of tax-exempt federal property. This bill authorizes $50 million in DoD Impact Aid to assist local educational agencies. An additional $10 million is authorized to support local educational agencies with higher concentrations of military children with severe disabilities.
Military spouse employment: A pilot program designed to provide direct hire authority for spouses of uniformed servicemembers at OCONUS locations supports First Lady Jill Biden’s Joining Forces initiatives to make “the federal government the employer of choice” for military spouses. The bill also includes language to develop a pilot program to establish employment fellowship opportunities for military spouses.
National Guard and Reserve special pay parity: The NDAA eliminates disparities of incentive pays for hazardous duties and aviators. Servicemembers performing these duties have historically earned pay at a rate of 1/30th of their active duty counterparts. However, the implementation of this is delayed until a report is submitted and Congress and the secretary of defense certifies the change won’t cause a detrimental effect on the force structure. MOAA will continue to follow this closely to ensure this disparity is finally closed.
[RELATED: More About Reserve Component Benefits]
Temporary one-year halt to military medical billet cuts: This NDAA requires a Government Accountability Office (GAO) evaluation on the DoD analyses used to support any reduction or realignment of military medical manning. DoD is also required to report to Congress on the number of uniformed and civilian personnel assigned to a military treatment facility (MTF) as of Oct. 1, 2019, and a comparable accounting as of Sept. 30, 2022. If the number in 2022 is less than the number in 2019, DoD must provide a full explanation for the reduction to demonstrate compliance with past provisions halting medical billet cuts.
Support for mental health appointment scheduling: Consistent with recommendations from the DoD Inspector General’s report on mental health access, this provision requires a minimum one-year pilot to provide direct assistance to beneficiaries with mental health appointment scheduling for both direct and purchased care components of the military health system.
Autism care demonstration program: The bill requires DoD to enter into an agreement with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to conduct an analysis on the effectiveness of the TRICARE Autism Care Demonstration. MOAA believes this is the appropriate next step to help evaluate the significant changes recently implemented to the demonstration.
Suicide prevention: This NDAA seeks to improve the ability for those in uniform to seek mental health support; 580 servicemembers died by suicide in 2020, and the numbers continue to increase each year. The bill includes a self-initiated process enabling a servicemember to request a mental health evaluation by asking for one from a commanding officer or supervisor. Although treatment and access to care is important, Congress and DoD still must tackle the harder problem of improving the quality of life for servicemembers and their families to address the issue using a more complete, effective approach.
Improvement to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) to address sexual harassment and assault: Sexual harassment will become a punishable offense in the UCMJ as DoD seeks to implement the findings of the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Harassment and Assault. Adding sexual harassment as a punishable offense, creating specialized military prosecutors, and placing decision authority to refer a case to courts-martial with a military prosecutor are good provisions only if DoD can properly resource the manpower for legal and investigative functions.
Afghanistan study: The bill requires a study on the war in Afghanistan. MOAA will track the progress of this study, which will review the whole-of-government role in this 20-year conflict, to include its tragic end.
Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) changes: A House Armed Services Committee (HASC) report on the NDAA expresses the committee’s concerns regarding proposed eligibility changes and “directed the Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to submit a report to congressional defense committees no later than March 1, 2022, on potential locations of the next national cemetery.”
What’s Not in the Bill?
More forceful ANC language: A halt to ANC eligibility changes with a directive to designate the next national cemetery that will afford full military honors was not included in the bill, though it was proposed as a Senate amendment. This issue will require continued advocacy as the HASC report is pending.
[TAKE ACTION: Ask Your Lawmakers to Preserve the National Cemetery Benefit]
Concurrent receipt: Language from the Major Richard Star Act was not included in the NDAA. It would support over 48,000 combat-injured military retirees with concurrent receipt of medical retired pay and VA disability. These combat-injured (and often seriously disabled) retirees currently are subject to an offset where their medical retirement pay is reduced for every dollar of VA disability received. Retired pay is for completed years of service paid by DoD, while disability compensation is for lifelong injury paid by the VA: Two different payments for two different purposes. To reduce retirement pay because of a disability is an injustice. Support for the Star Act is bipartisan and has grown to 54 Senate co-sponsors and 148 House co-sponsors; the bill has very good potential to reach a tipping point next year. The Star Act is part of MOAA’s incremental strategy to achieve concurrent receipt for all retirees.
[TAKE ACTION: Ask Your Lawmakers to Support the Major Richard Star Act]
Women for Selective Service: A provision requiring women to register for the Selective Service was omitted from the final NDAA although the language was in both House and Senate versions. The final report from the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service recommended women should register for Selective Service. Although MOAA remains committed to protecting the all-volunteer force and not returning to the draft, the report highlighted many important recruiting challenges. For example, the commission estimated 70% of 18-to-26-year-olds in the U.S. cannot meet the physical and psychological standards for service and provided important perspective to sustain and improve benefits for the all-volunteer force. This issue likely will return as a problem Congress cannot avoid.
TRICARE Young Adult (TYA): Ensuring military kids have the same health care protections as their civilian peers as they transition to adulthood remains a priority for MOAA. Direct spending impacts were the main barrier to getting this bill in the NDAA, and MOAA will not support a solution that raises fees on other beneficiaries. We will continue our efforts to achieve a TYA parity fix next year.
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