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Witness Testimony of Colonel Robert F. Norton, USA (Ret.), Military Officers Association of America, Deputy Director, Government Relations

MADAM CHAIRWOMAN AND DISTINGUISHED MEMBERS OF THE SUBCOMMITTEE, on behalf of the nearly 370,000 members of the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), I am honored to have this opportunity to present the Association’s views on various legislative proposals before the Subcommittee today. 

MOAA does not receive any grants or contracts from the federal government.

STATEMENT

MOAA appreciates the work of this Subcommittee for holding a number of hearings in recent years on educational and other benefits legislative proposals that support our veterans’ reintegration to civilian life following active military service.

This Statement offers our views and recommendations on a number of bills before the Subcommittee today that we believe are important to the needs of the military community and veterans.

H.R. 5684 (Rep. Herseth-Sandlin, D-SD, At Large). MOAA strongly supports H.R. 5684 and we are very grateful for the bipartisan support for the substantial MGIB upgrades in the bill.  During a time of war, our service men and women deserve no less.

MOAA is particularly pleased that H.R. 5684 includes a number of longstanding MOAA priorities, including:

  • Higher reimbursement rates that would cover at least the average cost of a public college / university education

  • Extension of the post-service usage period to 15 years (from 10 years)

  • Prohibition against counting MGIB benefits as income when applying for federal financial aid

  • More flexible rules for the use of benefits – such as for licensing or certification prep courses and business-related courses

  • An opportunity for currently serving members who declined to enroll in the MGIB to withdraw that decision and enroll in the program

MOAA is also grateful for the new monthly stipend provision of $500 for full time study / training and $250 for half-time study; and, for the bill provisions that would improve the capability of the VA Education Service to more efficiently and effectively administer GI Bill benefits.

A Coherent Approach to the New GI Bill

Over the course of a number of hearings before this Subcommittee and the full Committee, we have urged restructuring the MGIB to reflect the way our combined active duty and reserve forces team is used today to accomplish operational missions at home and overseas. 

A “total force” approach to the MGIB essentially means that educational benefits should be structured according to the type and length of duty performed by our service men and women.  It no longer makes sense to have multiple GI Bill programs that reflect Cold War policies and procedures. 

Active duty service entrants earn benefits according to the duration of their initial service contract, usually two to four years. 

Historically, National Guard and Reserve recruits received about 47-50 percent of the three-year active duty contract rate.  That changed in the late 1990s.  Reserve initial entry rates dropped to 29% of the active duty rate and have remained stagnant for the five-long years of this war. 

MOAA continues to urge that the Department of Defense restore the 47-50 percent ratio of the basic reserve MGIB with the active duty program. We are confident that that would help sustain quality recruiting in this difficult recruiting period.

Alternatively, DoD and the Armed Services Committees should consider either converting the basic reserve MGIB program authorized under Chapter 1606, 10 USC to a service-funded “tuition assistance” program, or relinquishing jurisdiction to the Veterans Affairs Committees.

Operational Reserve Service Should be Included in H.R. 5684

The FY 2008 National Defense Authorization Act established readjustment benefits under Chapter 1607, 10 USC  for operational reservists who serve on active duty on contingency operation orders.  This change accomplished MOAA’s and the Partnership for Veterans’ Education’s top priority for the MGIB in 2007 and we are very grateful to Congress for it. 

Two inequities, however, remain for operational reservists with respect to their GI Bill benefits.  First, reservists are limited to crediting the single longest tour of active duty until they acquire 36 months of active duty service.  Second, for those who do complete an aggregate of 36 months service, they are limited to 80% of the Chapter 30 MGIB rate – the two year contract rate – instead of the 100% rate their 36 months of cumulative active duty service has earned them. 

Since 9/11 more than 150,000 reservists have served multiple active duty tours.  Some have already served 36 months active duty and thousands more will reach that level soon. 

The only way for the Army to meet sustained deployment rotations under the newly announced 12 month tours for active Army soldiers is to increase reliance on National Guard brigade combat teams and other federal reserve force assets. 

If you serve the nation on active duty in the war on terror, your GI Bill benefits should be equal for the same service performed.

MOAA strongly recommends that the Subcommittee amend H.R. 5684 to include an accrual provision that would authorize our Guard and Reserve warriors to earn active duty MGIB benefits as they serve up to a maximum of 36 months.

Other Legislative Proposals

MOAA respectfully recommends that the Subcommittee examine recently re-introduced Senate and House proposals, such as S. 22, in structuring a new GI Bill for today’s service men and women.  S. 22, for example, includes a reserve accrual authority discussed above, an innovative public – private partnership with independent colleges, a geographic housing allowance (an alternative approach to H.R. 5684’s flat rate stipend), and an authority for Service Academy and ROTC Scholarship recipient graduate commissioned officers to enroll in the GI Bill in exchange for a service extension agreement.

During MOAA’s legislative presentation before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees on 3 April 2008, we strongly endorsed Senate bill, S. 22, as reintroduced by Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) with original cosponsors Senators John Warner (R-VA), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Chuck Hagel (D-NE).

MOAA urged that

“the [House and Senate Veterans Affairs] Committees ‘deconflict’ the statutory authority for the MGIB in Chapter 30, 38 USC with the proposed new GI Bill for the 21st century, S. 22 (Revised).  We believe desirable features in the MGIB should be incorporated into the proposed new Chapter 33, 38 USC, or vice versa.  To maintain two GI Bill program authorities at the same time will undoubtedly cause confusion and be difficult to administer.”

In this regard, MOAA has no preference whether the most desirable features of H.R. 5684 and other pending GI Bill legislation should be incorporated into Chapter 30, 38 USC or in Chapter 33 (the proposed ‘site’ for S. 22).  We strongly believe, however, that only one Chapter should be used to create a “total force” approach to the GI Bill for our 21st century warriors.

MOAA also respectfully requests the Subcommittee consider including two other initiatives in the final version of H.R. 5684. 

VEAP ‘Decliner’ Enrollment.  <20,000 servicemembers who declined to enroll in VEAP remain on active duty.  This cohort has at least 22+ years service and most will retire in the near term. 

VEAP Participants with zero-balance accounts were permitted to enroll in the MGIB in the late 90s if they agreed to pay $2700 -- the out-of-pocket cost for a full VEAP account.  Only 11% of that group agreed to pay the $2700 fee to get into the MGIB.  Consistent with this policy, it would not be unreasonable to expect VEAP Decliners still on active duty to pay $2700 with a COLA-adjustment as a condition of MGIB enrollment.  Based on the earlier VEAP-MGIB conversion, we estimate that the cost would be very low since only about 2200 (11%) would elect to enroll. 

MOAA recommends the Subcommittee include a VEAP Decliner MGIB enrollment opportunity in Section 9 – Opportunity to withdraw election not to enroll in educational assistance program – of H.R. 5684.

Surviving Spouses of Dual-Military Couples.  The second initiative concerns certain surviving spouses of dual-military couples.  There are cases in today’s force where a military surviving spouse of a military member who died in the line of duty is ineligible for the MGIB; e.g., Service Academy or SROTC Scholarship commissioned officers are ineligible for the MGIB.  Under current law, the military surviving spouse is also denied use of Survivors and Dependents Educational Assistance (DEA) benefits while continuing to serve on active duty (See: Chapter 35, Section 3501(d), 38 USC).

MOAA recommends a law change to permit military surviving spouses who elect to remain on active duty but are ineligible for the MGIB to be authorized to use Chapter 35 DEA benefits while continuing to serve.   

H.R. 4889, the Guard and Reserves are Fighting Too Act of 2008 (Chairman Bob Filner, D-CA).

At a hearing before this Subcommittee on 17 January, in response to a question from Chairwoman Herseth-Sandlin, a senior DoD official stated that the Department of Defense no longer objected to the recodification of  the Reserve Educational Assistance Program (REAP) in Title 38. 

The FY 2008 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) established readjustment benefits for operational reservists entitled to REAP under Chapter 1607, 10 USC.  With the NDAA change, however, the DoD must “pay for” a veteran’s benefit – namely REAP readjustment benefits – for our National Guard and Reserve warriors following their separation from military service. 

Under a “total force” approach to the GI Bill, active duty and reserve forces’ readjustment educational benefits should be overseen and administered under Title 38.  (Basic reserve educational benefits for enlistment – Chapter 1606, 10 USC – have no readjustment purpose and could remain in Title 10 subject to the judgment of the House Armed Services and the Veterans Affairs Committees).

MOAA strongly agrees with the Department of Defense’s conclusion that the Chapter 1607 program no longer belongs in Title 10 since its purpose is to support veterans’ readjustment. 

MOAA strongly recommends that H.R. 4889 be incorporated as an Amendment to H.R. 5684 in full Committee markup of H.R. 5684.

Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) legislation

H.R. 3298, 21st Century Servicemembers Protection Act (Rep. Patrick J. Murphy, D-PA)

H.R. 3298 would amend the SCRA to allow individuals called to military service to terminate or suspend a service contract, after the date of entry into service or the date of the military orders, if: (1) the service contract  (such as cellular phone, cable or satellite television service, internet service, utilities or automobile insurance) is executed before the individual is called to service for a period of at least 90 days; or (2) the person enters into the contract while in military service and thereafter receives orders for a change of permanent station to a location outside the United States, or to deploy with a military unit for a period of at least 180 days.

H.R. 3298 would establish penalties against anyone who: (1) holds property or funds of a person in military service who lawfully terminates a contract; or (2) violates the 6% limit on interest rates charged to servicemembers during a period of military service.

MOAA strongly believes that military men and women called to defend our nation should not be penalized by steep termination fees for personal services contracts such as cell phone service, cable and satellite TV or internet service.  MOAA strongly supports H.R. 3298. 

H.R. 4883 (Chairman Bob Filner, D-CA).  H.R. 4883 would amend the SCRA by extending from 90 days to one-year the limitation on the sale, foreclosure, or seizure of property owned by a servicemember following release from a period of active duty service.

In this particularly difficult “mortgage meltdown” environment, our nation’s defenders should be given every reasonable extension on their mortgage payment obligations upon return from active duty service.  MOAA strongly endorses H.R. 4883.   

Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA)

H.R. 3393, Reservists Access to Justice Act of 2007 (Rep. Artur Davis, D-AL).   H.R. 3393 would amend the USERRA by allowing a court, if it determines that a federal, state, or private employer's failure to comply with a veteran's reemployment rights was willful, to require the employer to pay the individual the greater of any loss of wages or benefits, or $20,000. The bill would require -- current law permits -- a court to exercise injunctive relief to fully vindicate such rights.

H.R. 3393 also would authorize a court to require a state or private employer to pay punitive damages for violations found to be with malice or reckless indifference to the individual's federally-protected reemployment rights.  In addition, the bill would make federal arbitration procedures inapplicable to claims for veterans' employment and reemployment rights and benefits.

MOAA and our colleagues in The Military Coalition endorsed H.R. 3393 in a letter to Representative Davis on 3 October 2007 (copy enclosed with this Statement). 

In addition to the protections proposed in H.R. 3393, MOAA also recommends the Subcommittee establish a single office in the government to be responsible for overseeing and tracking USERRA claims, whether formal or informal.   MOAA addressed this issue in our legislative presentation before the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees on 3 April: 

“The routine activation of National Guard and reserve service men and women is a fact of life in today’s world.  Under ‘operational reserve’ policies, reservists can expect to be on active duty for at least one year of every five years they serve on inactive (drill) duty.  But the reality in the war on terror is otherwise: over 150,000 Guard and Reserve members already have served multiple tours of active duty in the last five years and tours often stretch to 15 months or longer.

In this context, MOAA believes it’s imperative to regularly review and update, as necessary, the laws, procedures and resources for ensuring the reemployment rights of reservists under the USERRA.

In its most recent Report, “Military Personnel: Federal Agencies Have Taken Actions to Address Servicemembers’ Employment Rights, but a Single Entity Needs to Maintain Visibility to Improve Focus on Overall Program Results” (GAO-08-254T, 8 November 2007), the GAO noted that:

  • No single agency is accountable for overseeing the USERRA complaint resolution process

  • Required reports to Congress on USERRA complaints do not include informal complaints data from the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) network of ombudsmen

  • USERRA information outreach and servicemember reporting of employer information has improved

  • The four Federal agencies responsible for USERRA complaints do not systematically track disability-related complaints.  Disability-related complaints and other complaints are not distinguished

MOAA agrees with the GAO’s recommendation that Congress should establish in law ‘a single entity accountable for maintaining visibility over the entire USERRA complaint resolution process.’ Support passage of H.R. 1632.”

H.R. 3798, National Guard Employment Protection Act of 2007 (Rep. Robin Hayes, R-NC).  H.R. 3798 would establish reemployment rights under the USERRA for certain National Guard service men and women called to active duty in their state under Title 32 to accomplish a mission requested by the Secretary of Defense. 

This proposed change appears to conform with post-September 11, 2001 law-changes that authorize members of the National Guard to be ordered to state active duty under Title 32 at the request of the President or the Secretary of Defense to perform a homeland security or national security mission within the limits of a particular state.  Although such duty is performed in the interest of the national security, Guard members currently are not authorized reemployment rights for performing such duty. 

MOAA strongly recommends passage of H.R. 3798 to protect the reemployment rights of certain National Guard service men and women who are performing a national security mission while serving on state active duty under Title 32.

H.R. 4539, Dept. of Veterans Affairs Loan Guaranty Cost Reduction Act of 2007 (Rep. Steve Buyer, R-IN, Ranking Member, House Committee on Veterans Affairs).  H.R. 4539 is a bi-partisan bill that would increase the maximum loan VA can guarantee to 125% of the Freddie Mac conforming limit ($417,000 X 1.25); extend some of the loan fees to 2017 (as a PAYGO offset); add refinancing of VA loans to the conforming limit; reduce the equity needed for VA to guaranty a refinance to 0% from the current 10%; and, for other purposes.  MOAA supports H.R. 4539. 

Conclusion

MOAA appreciates the opportunity to present our views on legislation that supports our service men women and veterans.   We look forward to working with the Members of the Subcommittee to ensure that our 21st century warriors, including members of the National Guard and Reserve, and veterans receive the benefits that match their service and sacrifice during this time of war.