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Here's What's Up for Families in the 2019 Defense Legislation

An icy fog cloaking the Capitol begins to give way to the morning sun in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
An icy fog cloaking the Capitol begins to give way to the morning sun in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Lawmakers in the House and the Senate have finished their individual work on the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act ... and now we wait.

Here's how this goes: Both bodies come up with their own versions of the annual legislation, which tells the Pentagon what it can do, must do, or absolutely cannot do with whatever funding its given for the following year. Lawmakers use this as an opportunity to roll out a variety of ideas or priorities for how our national defense is conducted, how troops are organized and, because we're all in this together, how military families are treated.

But the versions often differ wildly. To rectify that problem they are sent to something called "conference" where a select group of lawmakers comes up with what things to keep and which to ditch. Often that means really controversial measures, like one in 2017 that would've slashed Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) down for dual military couples, get a first OK and then, ultimately, canned.

(I like to envision conference as including some West Side Story inspired dance fighting. It makes it more fun.)

The 2019 NDAA process has been fairly light on major military family legislation, especially as compared to recent years that have included plans to completely close the commissary, an overhaul to Tricare and a bunch of BAH drama.

But there are still multiple family measures passed by the House or Senate that could be cleared or, instead, ditched during conference. In a few cases military family advocates are hoping the ditching is exactly what happens.

NDAA 2019 Family Highlights

Tricare Select cost increases. A measure passed by the Senate bumps to 2019 a plan to add a Tricare Select enrollment fee for current retirees while also increasing a bunch of other costs. Advocates are fighting hard against this one and, you can see all the details in this story.

Gold Star access cards. Both the House and Senate version include some kind of language giving Gold Star family members permanent base access cards. But the Senate's version is especially problematic. This story explains why.

Expand federal dental program access to more users. Last year Congress ordered Tricare to completely kill the Tricare retiree dental program and instead push retirees into the dental insurance marketplace used by federal civilian employees. This year the Senate's version tells the Pentagon to give active duty folks access to that market place, too. But unlike the retiree plan, Tricare would still keep its own plan as yet another option.

Expand Military OneSource eligibility. The Pentagon this year decided to expand to one year the eligibility of former troops and family members to the Military OneSource program, including its free non-medical counseling. The Senate's version makes that expansion law.

Military spouse employment help. Earlier this year Sen. Tim Kaine announced a series of proposals to assist with the military spouse employment issue. While most of them simply order studies -- a favorite kick the can tactic on Capitol Hill -- a few them passed by the Senate could make measurable change if given the OK. One measure makes it easier to hire childcare workers on base, a popular job choice for many spouses. Another expands a federal hiring authority.

Flexible maternity and paternity leave. The House bill requires the Pentagon to let new parents split their maternity and paternity leave. Right now that leave is often continuous. This rule would let parents take some of it now, some of it later.

A whole bunch of pilot programs. The Senate this year seems to really dig pilot programs. They include in-home child abuse prevention training and a program to basically guarantee that spouses can attend whatever transition assistance program classes they want.

One measure to not make the cut at all

The most controversial family related proposal to be completely dismissed by both bodies was one that would created education spending accounts for some military families who don't want to use the public school system. The accounts would've those families cash to help pay for other school options.

But to do so, it would have raided funding for a program known as Impact Aid, which subsidizes the funding of public schools who have a lot of military connected students. Lawmakers seem to have agreed with the many military family advocates who said that was a really bad idea.

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