NGAUS Focuses on Annual Defense Policy Bill

By Ron Jensen, Editor/Senior Writer, National Guard Association of the United States

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The U.S. Senate will begin full consideration this week on its version of the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee, two weeks after the House passed its final version of the massive defense policy bill.               

The National Guard Association of the United States, or NGAUS, which advocates for the interests of the National Guard in the nation’s capital, has seen things in both bills that would benefit guardsmen, but there are some troubling items, too. These provisions will have a direct impact on the 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia where the Guard operates in more than 3,000 communities.

Both bills are huge, containing hundreds of pages. NGAUS is following progress on the legislation closely, and has identified a number of items of interest to state officials.

One immediate difference in the House and Senate bills is military pay. The House seeks a 2.1 percent pay hike, while the Senate seems content with the 1.6 percent increase found in the president’s budget request.

Another difference is personnel end-strength for the Army Guard. The House puts the number at 350,000, while the Senate committee endorses 335,000. However, NGAUS believes an amendment could be proposed this week to the Senate bill that would maintain it at 342,000, the current level. 

The House version of the NDAA authorizes $16.5 million for the State Partnership Program, which pairs the guard in individual states with the militaries of various nations. Right now, 76 such partnerships are active, with some states having more than one. The amount allocated in the House bill is almost $7 million more than the president’s budget provided for this popular program.

Both chambers would remove a $300 cap on travel reimbursement and take away some other restrictions on travel pay. For many reserve-component members, $300 does not cover their costs to attend a monthly drill or an exercise. Under the legislation, reimbursement would be considered on a case-by-case basis to more fairly compensate military members for their service.

“Some guardsmen are paying money out of their own pockets to attend drill,” said retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, the NGAUS president. “That’s not right and the lawmakers have been right to include the language to correct it.”

Also, guard members would qualify for TRICARE coverage, the health care program of the U.S. Department of Defense, while responding to disasters in their states under provisions in both bills. Currently, they receive that benefit only while serving on active-duty status. 

Both the House and Senate have approved additional money for the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program, which helps at-risk young people who have left high school early get back on the path toward success. The program exists in 27 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

“This is one of the guard’s most worthwhile outreaches to the communities in which guardsmen live and work,” Hargett said. “It deserves adequate funding so it can grow and reach young people before they are lost for good.”

Both chambers seem to recognize the important role the guard can play in cybersecurity. Guardsmen who work in this field as civilians can help battle the growing threat while in uniform.

The Senate will debate this week a provision that would require the guard to share the deputy-commander slot at U.S. Northern Command with the Reserves. Since 2009, that important position has been held by a guardsman. NGAUS believes sharing it with a Reserve officer would be a move backward for the guard.            

In addition, one measure would remove the rank from the vice chief of the National Guard Bureau, which is now a three-star slot. The Senate committee would leave that rank up to the Army and Air Force as part of a provision that would reduce by 25 percent the number of general officers in the military. This would not affect adjutants general or assistant-adjutants general, but it would give the guard less representation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff processes.

NGAUS will be focused on these and other issues this week during the Senate debate and later as the two chambers reconcile the two versions of the bill.