The Senate Armed Services Personnel subcommittee approved its portion of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization legislation Tuesday, endorsing a 3% pay raise for troops and an increase to military end strength that is "largely consistent" with the Defense Department's 5,600-person request.
The subcommittee approved a package that included 75 legislative provisions, 22 "items of special interest" and six budget considerations during the only open hearing in the Senate committee's bill markup process.
While the subcommittee did not publish complete details of the proposal, subcommittee chairman Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, said it includes measures to improve the quality of life for military personnel and families. These include, he indicated, incentive pay to retain military health officers, standardization of the services' exceptional family member programs and $20 million for civilian schools to provide education to severely disabled military children.
It also seeks to improve military recruiters' access to high schools and colleges and halt personnel cuts planned by the Department of Defense Education Activity. The DoDEA announced last year it would increase the teacher-to-student ratio at most schools and slash 308 full-time teacher positions, as well as a dozen principal and vice principal jobs.
The subcommittee's bill, if approved as written, would halt planned teacher reductions through 2024 and "maximize" student-teacher ratios, according to Tillis.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the subcommittee's highest-ranking Democrat, praised included provisions such as requirements that the DoD procure body armor that properly fits female service members and improve tracking of child abuse cases.
She thanked fellow senators for including an expansion of victims' rights that would require they be notified of appellate proceedings following court-martial convictions.
But Gillibrand added that she was disappointed that the bill does not include proposals she believes would increase the number of unrestricted reports filed for sexual assault or improve case reviews of sexual assault.
Gillibrand added that she also would like to see a requirement that lawmakers submit their service academies nominations online -- a process that would allow the government to better track the demographic data of those recommended to attend military academies.
She said such information is necessary because recommendations for female and minority students remain low.
"Until we provide transparency into who we are recommending, and let the public decide if we are doing our part to promote women and people of color, we will continue to see academies made up of predominantly white and male students," Gillibrand said.
During the 15-minute hearing, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, urged fellow subcommittee members to support an amendment to help service members and families who experience food insecurity.
Citing data that indicates 16,000 active-duty service members were eligible for food stamps in 2017 and a third of children at military schools -- 6,500 students -- were eligible for free or reduced lunch at DoD schools in the U.S., Duckworth said more must be done to help troops living at or below 200% of the poverty line.
"This tells me that we are not taking care of our people," she said.
Health measures in the draft bill also include a requirement that the DoD Inspector General audit the medical conditions of service members and families who lived in privatized military housing; a mandate that post-deployment health assessments include specific questions about burn pit exposure; and an authorization that would allow the Defense Health Agency to waive co-pays for prescriptions filled by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Monday, every Senate Armed Services subcommittee has approved their portions of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, the first steps in the long legislative process to draft a final version.
The full committee will take up the bill in closed session Wednesday.