U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill applauded the passage yesterday of a major defense policy bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2011, in the Senate Armed Services Committee, on which she sits. McCaskill won inclusion of several important amendments in the bill, including an amendment that will likely illustrate that it is more fiscally responsible to purchase new F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft to meet large shortfalls in tactical strike aircraft on aircraft carriers in the Navy than to try to make old aircraft last longer. In addition, McCaskill supported the addition of 6 F/A-18's for FY2011. McCaskill also won inclusion of several measures to improve oversight of the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on military contracting, an issue she has pursued as Chair of the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, including an amendment to require the Pentagon to begin comprehensive planning for use of its contractors. Other contracting amendments include a measure to stop the lack of enforcement of the Iran Sanctions Act and a provision to require that the Army hold open competitions when buying guns for our troops. The NDAA outlines funding levels for the Department of Defense (DoD) for the coming fiscal year and addresses major defense policy matters. It was passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee with a vote of 18-10.
For the fourth year in a row, Senator McCaskill fought to open the Committee's consideration of the bill to the public. While some senators claim that the negotiations on the bill need to be conducted in secret in order to protect classified information that may be discussed, McCaskill has repeatedly pointed out that the public should have a right to see what goes on during the NDAA markup and the Committee can easily move into closed session for any classified discussions. This year McCaskill's effort received nine votes to hold the debate in open session, which is more than she has ever received in the past, but failed to reach the 15 vote majority needed to fully open the markup to the American people.
McCaskill also voted in favor of the compromise that would repeal the Don't Ask Don't Tell statute prohibiting gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. However, the compromise would prohibit the repeal from going into effect until a military review of the repeal's implications is concluded and the President, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense have certified that repealing the policy will not have a negative impact on military readiness. The measure passed with a vote of 16-12.
Specifically, McCaskill won inclusion in the bill of amendments that would:
Address the F/A-18 Fighter Jet Shortfall
* Require the Secretary of the Navy to conduct a business case analysis of whether it is more fiscally responsible to buy new F/A-18 aircraft to address the serious shortfall in Navy carrier aircraft currently facing the Navy or to extend older F/A-18 aircraft beyond their projected service life. The Secretary must complete the analysis before he can pursue an extension of the life of the older aircraft. Many experts believe that it will prove cheaper, when evaluating the cost per flight hour, to buy new planes than to extend the life of old planes. New planes also have the advantage of possessing substantially improved technology. The amendment also limits the Navy's ability to reduce the number of aircraft it operationally deploys on aircraft carriers as a means of addressing its aircraft shortfall until it certifies whether are risks to the readiness of our forces and to meeting global. McCaskill also strongly supported the Committee's decision to authorize the purchase of 40 F/A-18 aircraft, six more than requested by the President. This will help keep production of F/A-18 aircraft at 40 planes a year. McCaskill, nonetheless, still warns that more needs to be done to address the Navy's carrier fighter aircraft shortfall.
Improve access to health care and benefits for military service members and families
* Improve access to mental health counselors covered by TRICARE. McCaskill introduced legislation with Senators Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) to provide licensed mental health counselors with the same status as all other major groups of mental health counselors currently working in the TRICARE system. Currently, licensed mental health counselors are singled out for additional administrative supervision, creating an unneeded barrier to bringing counselors into TRICARE to meet the growing demand for mental health services. McCaskill has a lengthy record of fighting to expand access to mental health care for service members.
* Extend coverage for dependents of military members in the TRICARE system to age 26. This amendment is similar to a bill that McCaskill, along with Senators Mark Udall (D-CO) and Mark Begich (D-AK), introduced earlier this year that would increase the maximum age from 23 to 26 for our troops and military retirees to keep their dependent children on their TRICARE coverage. Under the new healthcare bill, health insurance providers will be required to cover children until age 26, but because TRICARE programs are exempt from the bill, TRICARE is not required to extend coverage that extra three years.
* Require the DoD to issue a report on adverse vaccine reactions. The amendment would require DoD to review and report on the adequacy of its policies supporting service members who have severe adverse vaccine reactions. In 2009, McCaskill introduced a bill to include DoD-administered vaccines for traumatic injury benefits paid out by the Traumatic Servicemembers Group Life Insurance (TSGLI) after she was inspired by a veteran who lives near Springfield, MO who had a life-threatening reaction to a smallpox vaccine administered before he deployed to Iraq. McCaskill hopes a DoD report will help make the case for passing her legislation to include adverse reactions to deployment-related vaccines to traumatic injury benefits. She believes that those experiencing life threatening injuries as a result of reactions to vaccines should receive the same care and benefits as those who receive the same type of injuries from other types of incidents.
Improve oversight and accountability for military contractors
* Require a DoD Inspector General study on the Afghan National Police Training Program and a Government Accountability Office report on the use of contractors and U.S. government personnel in overseeing the program. McCaskill held a hearing on the contract for this program in her Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight. There is a clear and pressing need for improved oversight of police training in Afghanistan, as well as a full evaluation of whether the way the U.S. military currently carries out police training is appropriate. McCaskill's amendment, which she introduced with Senator Ted Kaufman (D-DE) and Senator Scott Brown (R-MA), will require an evaluation of whether it is appropriate for contractors to carry out this important function.
* Require companies that are applying for Department of Defense contracts to certify that they are not in violation of the Iran Sanctions Act, which prohibits U.S. contractors from doing certain business with Iran. McCaskill recently questioned witnesses at a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on the failure to enforce the contractor provisions in the Iran Sanctions Act. Senators Carl Levin (D-MI), Lieberman, Collins and Scott Brown joined McCaskill in introducing this important provision to get some much-needed accountability and enforcement by the U.S. Government of our existing sanctions laws against Iran.
* Require contracting be included as part of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), National Defense Strategy (NDS) and National Military Strategy (NMS) in order to force the Department of Defense to do better, more realistic planning about how contractors will be used in contingency operations and in the United States. McCaskill believes the strategic implications of how the military uses contracting is an important national security concern.
* Require additional oversight of private security contractors to address shortcomings in management of security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. In March, McCaskill participated in a hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee that highlighted serious concerns with private security contractors such as Paravant/Blackwater being awarded multi-billion contracts with little or no accountability and oversight. McCaskill also chaired a hearing of the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight that exposed substantial problems in the performance and oversight of a private security contractor at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan which led her to introduce legislation along with Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) that would require greater oversight of such contracts. This provision, which largely mirrors McCaskill's legislation, will:
o Require the DoD to assign an appropriate number of personnel to the oversight of contractors performing private security functions in areas of combat operations.
o Make contractors expressly responsible for the conduct of their subcontractors who provide private security services.
o Establish repercussions for failures to comply with these requirements or with directives from combatant commanders.
o Require DoD to issue a report by December 1, 2010 on what it is doing, if anything, to reduce dependence on security contractors in Afghanistan.
* Increase the DoD's ability to penalize contractors who harm U.S. Government employees and are able to avoid the jurisdiction of U.S. courts because of personal jurisdiction matters. McCaskill has introduced legislation to allow military contractors who harm U.S. Government employees to be held accountable in the U.S. judicial system and also held a hearing about her legislation, which was inspired by LTC Dominic "Rocky" Baragona, who was killed in Iraq by a Kuwaiti-owned contractor of the U.S. Army. That contractor has refused to appear in U.S. court to answer for its negligent killing of LTC Baragona. McCaskill has continued to express outrage at this loophole in current law and this amendment helps ensure that future contractors will not be able to avoid any accountability for negligently killing U.S. service members.
* Prohibit small arms contracts from being awarded on a sole source basis and require those contracts be awarded based on full and open competition in order to get the best weapons for our troops in combat. This amendment, offered with Senators Kay Hagan (D-NC), Richard Burr (R-NC) and Scott Brown, breaks a cycle of decades of sole-source contracts that have hindered competition in the small arms industry. Many believe that the lack of competition has resulted in our troops having weapons in combat that don't fully meet their needs and that are not the best available weapons.