Progress on reserve vet status, vet preference initiatives
Two no-cost initiatives to honor the service of Reserve and National Guard members are edging forward in Congress, though final passage this year is still far from certain.
The more familiar of the two bills would bestow honorary "veteran" status on up to 200,000 Reserve and National Guard retirees who can't now be called military veterans as defined under federal law.
A newer initiative, being pushed by Reserve Officers Association, would make many more former Reserve and Guard members who were called to active duty under support orders eligible for veterans preference in competing for federal civilian jobs. Here's a status report on both:
Honor America's Guard-Reserve Retirees Act (HR 1384, S 743)
Every year more reserve component retirees learn to their surprise that they cannot claim to be veterans, despite part-time careers in service to the nation. They are retirees who were never ordered to active duty other than for initial training and brief periods of annual training.
In recent years the lack of veteran status for those retirees stung a bit more with every failed attempt by proponents in Congress to win for them honorary veterans status. Inevitably, it seemed, either the Senate or the House or both fumbled the initiative during a final frantic year-end rush to complete neglected work on behalf of veterans.
Particularly frustrating for backers of the Honor America's Guard-Reserve Retirees Act, which has been introduced in the last four Congresses, is that the bills have no cost. The most recent versions specifically state that the reserve component retirees being honored with veteran status "shall not be entitled to any benefit by reason of this honor."
The House last November passed HR 1384 by a vote of 407-to-0. Referred immediately to the Senate, it languished there until May when the Veterans Affairs Committee finally made it part of a massive legislative package called the Veterans First Act (S 2921). The showpiece of that bill is a $3.1 billion plan to phase in for older generations of severely injured veterans the caregiver benefits enacted in 2010 for Post-9/11 veterans. That provision also might be the bill's fatal flaw if the House rejects the idea.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., last May signaled through a committee spokesman that he doesn't favor expansion of the caregiver program until a rash of problems with the current program, documented by congressional auditors, hasbeen ad dressed.
On Tuesday a House committee spokesman also noted pointedly that 30 separate House-passed veterans bills still await Senate consideration. The tone suggests the two chambers are far apart on how to tackle veteran reform initiatives issues, particularly with a long summer recess and elections this fall shrinking the number of days Congress will be in session.
Senate leaders allowed all of June to pass without a floor vote on the Veterans First Act and then adjourned until September. That leaves a lot less time for House and Senate conferees to reconcile very different approaches taken this year on more critical veteran issues. Time will tell if the honorary veteran status language survives to be included in a final veterans omnibus bill or if it gets ignore again during tough negotiations on a lot of other matters, including this year the caregiver expansion favored by the Senate and tougher accountability rules for VA executives sought by the House.
Reserve and Guard Veterans Preference
Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, has introduced a bill, HR 5526, to improve VA hiring procedures that includes language to extend veterans' preference for federal jobs to more Reserve and National Guard members who have been called to active duty. The vet preference initiative was conceived by the Reserve Officers Association (ROA) to better recognize the wartime contributions of today's "operational" reserve components in contrast to the largely standby role for reserve forces during the Cold War era.
The bill, introduced last month, would confer veteran status for the purpose of federal hiring on any reserve component member who has 180 "cumulative" days on active duty under call-up orders. That would relax a current requirement of 180 "consecutive" days for Reserve and Guard to gain veterans preference.
Many of the 900,000 Reserve and Guard members activated for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and of the 250,000 reservists activated for the first Gulf War of 1990-91, were called up for periods well short of 180 days.
In urging leaders on the veterans affairs committees to support the measure, Jeffrey Phillips, executive director of ROA, noted in a letter that Congress has extended veterans' preference for federal jobs to parents of veterans who died or became severely disabled while serving their country.
Commending that development, Phillips argued that the change now sought would recognize the recent pattern of operational support provided by Reserve and Guard, with many serving multiple tours of less than six months, too short to qualify for veterans' preference under current law.
"They should not be penalized for the nature of their service," he said. "By being available for shorter durations, Guard and Reserve members demonstrate the flexibility the nation needs, in a cost-effective manner."
He noted that those same members could serve 20 years or more and not accrue the 180 consecutive days of active service needed under current law to qualify for veterans' preference. Phillips described the initiative as a "virtually cost-free" to "correct this situation and to facilitate employment among our reserve components even as they support the nation."
In a phone interview Phillips and Susan Lukas, director of legislative policy for ROA, said no lawmaker has so far objected to the initiative, a promising sign for inclusion in any omnibus veterans package passed by year's end. Passage as a stand-alone bill would be more difficult because HR 5526 has 14 other provisions, some of which do have costs.
Indeed, a House committee spokesman said "the future of HR 5526 is uncertain because Democrats oppose any offset that would pay for the bill and have put forth no viable alternatives for offsetting the bill's cost."