THE HILL: Obama's veto threatens National Guard and Reserve readiness
By Jeffrey E. Phillips
President Obama's veto of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorizes funds for the Department of Defense, does more than create wide-scale uncertainty within the Department of Defense. It also shortchanges the men and women serving in the National Guard and Reserve.
Guard and Reserve forces are currently deployed at historically high rates. The Army Reserve alone has soldiers deployed in 30 countries and Congress recognized the need to ensure these troops have what they need by passing the NDAA. In crafting the spending plan this year, Congress shifted some funding from the baseline Pentagon budget to the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund, which essentially funds America’s war fighting efforts.The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, but this shifting of funds triggered the president’s unprecedented veto, which has damaging effects on our forces in several ways.
The OCO fund includes the National Guard and Reserve Equipment Account, which funds new equipment and ensures the Guard and Reserve are properly equipped for missions and training.
But during a Brookings Institution briefing October 20, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) explained that a veto means no new equipment purchases or updates requested for Reserve forces can occur.
Members of the Reserve and Guard would be trained on, and potentially deployed with, equipment that is no longer used by their active duty comrades.
Obama’s veto also means that Guard and Reserve members will lose pay and benefitsthat expired on September 30. Earlier this fall, the Reserve Officers Association wrote the president, pointing out that the bill would extend higher pay and other benefits to Guard and Reserve personnel. Without these extensions, they and their families will see certain bonuses and pay increases expire, removing incentives for them to stay in the military.
The veto also stalls much needed reforms to the military retirement system, reforms that benefit Guard and Reserve forces. One powerful measure includes a “lump sum option” that retirees could choose, providing flexibility when Guard and Reserve members are making retirement decisions.
In addition, the NDAA authorizes a new Thrift Savings Plan (the government version of the traditional 401 (k) plan), which would extend retirement benefits to the 80 percent of service members who do not currently receive any retirement benefits. The NDAA veto means implementation of these provisions will not begin as scheduled, hindering the new retirement plan’s rollout in January 2018.
Especially hard hit by this delay in compensation and retirement reform are younger members of the Guard and Reserve, who must make hard choices about career and family versus military service. Given our commitments abroad, and President Obama’s recent decision to keep American troops in Afghanistan at least through 2016, it’s imperative that Washington recognize the critical role played by Guard and Reserve personnel.
The combined effect resulting from this veto harms the readiness of our military. With the Army already at the “ragged edge” of readiness, as outgoing Secretary of the Army John McHugh described it, the loss of Guard and Reserve funding robs these forces of essential equipment readiness and removes incentives to keep our Guard and Reserve components strong.
Whether Congress has the will to override the president’s veto is uncertain. While the NDAA passed the Senate with more than the two-thirds majority required to override a veto, the margin of passage in the House did not exceed that threshold. Add to that the anticipated arm-twisting of senators and representatives in advance of an election year and the prospects for overriding the veto are murky at best.
What is clear, however, is that this veto does a disservice to our National Guard and Reserve forces, who deserve programs, policies and funding that recognize their sacrifices and the service they provide our nation.
Phillips is executive director of the Reserve Officers Association.