By David Levinsky
The U.S. House of Representatives approved a multibillion-dollar military and veterans spending bill this week that appropriates money for veterans' suicide programs and includes language blocking the Pentagon from holding another round of base closures or modifications next year.
The bill, HR 2216, appropriates $73.6 billion for military construction projects and veterans programs, including $20 million for veterans suicide prevention that New Jersey Reps. Jon Runyan, R-3rd of Mount Laurel, and Rush Holt, D-12th of Hopewell, helped secure.
Runyan also was successful in getting an amendment approved to the bill that expressly prohibits the Department of Defense from spending money to plan for or execute a new Base Realignment and Closure round.
Under a Base Realignment and Closure round, also known as BRAC, a special commission is formed to examine recommendations made by the Pentagon to close, shift or cut missions from domestic military installations to reduce costs. The commission then makes its own recommendations to Congress for an up or down vote.
The process is intended to save money and improve efficiencies, but it puts scores of jobs and programs on military bases at risk.
Runyan said the measure was needed to make sure the military remains ready and able to defend the country's interests. He also said it was intended to protect Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Burlington County, one of the largest employers in the region.
It follows requests made by the Pentagon last year for two additional rounds of base closures.
"This amendment ensures the limited resources we have are used to address current mission and readiness needs," Runyan said in a statement after the vote. "It also protects the jobs and missions of bases across the country, including Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. It is imperative that we remain vigilant and stay one step ahead of any efforts to allow the Department of Defense any avenue to move forward with a BRAC round at this time."
Runyan authored a similar amendment blocking a future BRAC that was added to last year's military construction and veterans spending bill. That bill also passed the Republican-controlled House.
The $20 million for veterans suicide outreach is the same amount secured by Runyan and Holt in the two previous military construction and veterans spending bills.
Both congressmen said the money is crucial to making sure veterans in turmoil receive the help or counseling they need.
"According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 22 of our military veterans commit suicide every day -- one every 65 minutes, to be precise," Runyan said. "This is unacceptable. The men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our country deserve our complete support while on the battlefield and when they return home."
Along with the veterans suicide funding, the bill contains additional money to help the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs speed claims processing and address its more than 500,000-case backlog. It also includes a provision blocking suspected terrorists detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, from being moved to the United States or the construction of military facilities to accommodate Guantanamo detainees.
It also does not include a proposed 1 percent pay increase for civilian defense employees requested by President Barack Obama.
The bill was approved by a 421-4 vote Tuesday night, despite threats from the White House to veto it and other spending bills like it because it is part of a GOP budget that Democrats oppose.
All 12 of New Jersey's congressional representatives voted for the military and veterans spending measure.