A key Senate panel on Thursday voted to approve a 1.6 percent pay raise for troops, requiring women to register for the draft and overhauling the military health care system.
The Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday approved the proposals as part of the fiscal 2017 defense authorization bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which sets policy goals and spending targets for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
The panel, headed by Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, voted 23-3 in favor of the legislation, which would authorize $602 billion in funding for the Defense Department and national security programs at the Energy Department.
"This is a reform bill," McCain said in a statement. "The NDAA contains the most sweeping reforms of the organization of the Department of Defense in a generation."
1.6 Percent Pay Raise
The Senate committee opposed a proposal from its counterpart panel in the House, chaired by Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry, a Republican from Texas, to give service members their biggest pay raise in years: a 2.1 percent increase.
In a statement this week defending his proposal, Thornberry said, "It gives our troops the full pay raise to which they are entitled under the law."
The Senate panel instead supported the White House and Defense Department recommendation of a 1.6 percent raise for next year. While that's higher than the 1.3 percent raise troops received this year and the 1 percent they got the previous two years, it's lower than the 2.1 percent raise called for under existing law to match private-sector wage growth.
According to the Pentagon's own budget documents, the law calls for a military pay raise to equal the annual increase in the wages and salaries of private industry employees as measured by the Employment Cost Index, or ECI, which is calculated by the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Women and the Draft
The Senate panel's version of the legislation would also require women to register for the draft beginning Jan. 1, 2018, and create a commission to to study whether the so-called selective service is still needed.
The language comes as more women are applying to infantry and other combat jobs after the Pentagon ordered each of the individual military services to open previously closed positions to female troops. Capt. Kristen Griest, for example, was expected to become the Army's first female infantry officer this week after making history last summer when she became one of the first women to complete Ranger School and earn the Ranger tab.
Specifically, the Senate bill includes a provision that would amend the Military Selective Service Act to include women in the requirement to register for the selective service, according to a statement on the legislation released by the Senate committee.
"Because the Department of Defense has lifted the ban on women serving in ground combat units, the committee believes there is no further justification in limiting the duty to register under the Military Selective Service Act to men," it states. "Furthermore, each uniformed chief of the services testified to their personal support of including women in the requirement to register for selective service."
A new National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service also "will examine whether the current global security environment still demands a selective service process designed to produce large quantities of combat troops, or whether a system based on the acquisition of certain critical skills and abilities for military and civilian service is more appropriate," the release states.
Health Care Reform
Last year, Congress approved overhauling the military retirement system. This year, the Senate committee wants it to do the same to the military health care system.
The release on the Senate legislation cited the January 2015 report from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission that concluded the military Tricare program has eroded in quality and become financially unsustainable.
The commission recommended doing away with the three Tricare programs for military families, reservists and working-age retirees (not elderly retirees in the Tricare for Life program) in favor of a new health care program, similar to the one for federal civilian employees, that would allow recipients to choose from a list of commercial health care plans.
The Senate bill, however, would authorize three "new and improved" Tricare plans called Tricare Prime, Tricare Choice and Tricare Supplemental, according to the release. It would eliminate existing cost-shares for services provided under the current Tricare Standard plan and replaces them with fixed co-payments to lower overall costs for beneficiaries, the document states.
The legislation also seeks to improve access to health care by expanding so-called telehealth services and requiring a standardized appointment system in military treatment facilities, among other provisions.