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Washington Update for week of 3/19/2018

TREA: The Enlisted Association's Washington Update



TREA: The Enlisted Association's Washington Update



TREA Meets with Head of Commissary Agency



In 2011 the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to combine all base exchanges and commissary operations everywhere into one for-profit retail business.  That began what has been constant pressure from some in Congress to cut the amount of taxpayer subsidy that is given to commissaries.

The Department of Defense has stated that it expects to reduce government funding for commissaries and exchanges by an estimated $2 billion ($1 billion from commissaries and another $1 billion funding target for exchanges) over a 5-year period during fiscal years 2017-2021.

In order to compensate for that cut in support, DeCA, the Defense Commissary Agency, has taken a number of steps to try and operate more like a busines but yet save the benefit.  However, the Department of Defense has said that the benefit cannot be saved if the commissaries are forced to operate as a for-profit business.

Last week TREA's Legislative Director Larry Madison met with the head of DeCA for a briefing on what has happened so far and what to look for in the future.  One of the issues that was discussed was the problem of keeping the shelves stocked with grocery products.  We were told they are aware of the problem and are working on it.  There are several issues involved because of the way things have been done in the commissaries in the past but we were assured they hope to have the problelm  solved very soon.

However, whether it's keeping shelves stocked or other problems, the reality is that sales at commissaries fell six percent last year, which continues a trend that began in 2012.  Sales have dropped a total of 21.3 percent since then.

This is a problem  because Congress is watching how much commissaries are used and whether or not they are worth the cost.

If you value the commissary benefit it is very important that you shop at your commissary as often as possible.  There is an effort in the Pentagon to move forward with combining all three exchanges (AAFES, Navy, and Marine Corps) with commissaries and making them all for-profit businesses.

If that happpens, the commissary benefit will be gone because the discount you get now will go away.

TREA is continuing  to fight to save the commissaries but you must help by shopping at the commissary is one is available to you, and also by letting your Senators and Representative know that you want the commmissaries saved and not made into a for-profit business.






Risks to the GI Bill Come From Education Committees



Congress is now considering legislation that would reauthorize the Higher Education Act of 1965. The veterans' community has not historically engaged with this legislation, which is now in the process of being reauthorized for the ninth time in the last 53 years by H.R. 4508, the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Higher Education Reform (PROSPER) Act.

There are several aspects of the legislation that TREA: The Enlisted Association supports, namely:

  • The bill encourages accreditors to focus more time and resources on schools that are struggling, as opposed to forcing them to spend equal time among schools that have no problems as well as problem schools.
  • Restricts a school's ability to hide poor student outcomes.
  • Increases program funding, along with incentives for schools that successfully graduate or improve graduation potential for Pell Grant recipients.
  • Expands the Pell Grant Program with a bonus of up to $300 for low-income students who take at least 30 credits during a full school year.

Unfortunately, H.R. 4508 fails to protect student veterans in a number of remarkable ways. For years TREA: The Enlisted Association has fought against the predatory and fraudulent practices of largely for-profit institutions that cheat student veterans who use the  Post 9/11 G.I. Bill, the Montgomery G.I. Bill, and survivor benefits like the Fry Scholarship. H.R. 4508 would enable "bad actor" schools to use deceptive recruitment practices that emphasize enrollment numbers rather than positive student outcomes.

In our opinion, the most egregious example of this is the fact that the bill eliminates the 90-10 rule-a requirement that for-profit schools receive no more than 90 percent of its revenue from the federal government. This imposes a market test, which means that if the "free market" will supply a school with at least ten percent of its total funding, the other 90 percent of its revenue can come from federal funding sources.

The 90-10 rule is built into the GI Bill to help assure the financial soundness of colleges and universities by curbing abuse within these programs.

Unfortunately, military educational benefits currently count in the 10 percent part of the formula, so that bad actor schools already target veterans as a way to skirt this rule. Doing away with the 90-10 rule would mean that schools can exist entirely on federal funding without having to adequately compete in the marketplace for non-federal funds. This is bad for student veterans, and bad for the American taxpayer. If a school can't get 10 percent of its funding from sources other than federal funding, it probably should not be in business.

The PROSPER Act repeals the gainful employment rule, which protects students from poor quality educational programs that are overpriced and lead to low-paying jobs. Making sure that schools actually provide their students with the means to attain high-paying jobs that provide veterans, and our country, a positive return on their investment is a common-sense position. The bill also eliminates the existing borrower defense to repayment regulation and puts in place new rules that make it more difficult for students defrauded by their educational institution to have their loans discharged.
Repealing the borrower defense regulation is a big deal, even in the veterans' community, because studies have shown that roughly 25 percent of all student veterans take out loans while advancing their education.

That is why reducing access to education by increasing the cost of college for service-affiliated students and discouraging them from continued service when they enter the workforce is such a problem. H.R. 4508 eliminates the subsidized Stafford Loan, which does not accumulate interest while a borrower is in school. This would increase the size of the average student loan burden by 44% - by the time that student, veteran or not, graduates.
Repayment also becomes more difficult under H.R. 4508 as borrowers and their families would be placed on a more stringent income-driven repayment plan, and for low-income borrowers with average debt loads, loan repayment could become lifelong burden.

Finally, H.R. 4508 proposes to eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), which enables borrowers to enter public service careers and give back to their communities by working in areas of high need for low pay. After 10 years of creditable service to the country the loans are forgiven. The US Naval Institute (USNI) News reports that almost 6,800 active duty military personnel are enrolled in the PSLF program, and the program's elimination will likely have a substantial impact on efforts to recruit veterans into advanced degree programs and continued service in military jobs.

This legislation makes harder to enter public service. It makes student loans bigger. It reduces repayment options that allow graduates to raise families and save for retirement. And it makes it harder to prevent bad actor schools from defrauding student veterans or to repair the damage that is done when schools defraud student veterans. These are not the type of policy prescriptions that TREA: The Enlisted Association can support. We call on Congress to do better, and not to serve the interests of the for-profit school industry over student veterans.

The Senate has no official companion legislation at the moment, but they are working behind the scenes. TREA: The Enlisted Association is fighting to prevent this legislation from becoming law and will report back with any updates.





VA Secretary Shulkin Twists in the Wind



Reports continue to circulate that the Secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, Dr. David Shulkin, could be fired by President Trump. However, over the weekend Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, told President Trump that he had "full confidence" in Secretary Shulkin, according to Politico.

Senate Republicans believe that Secretary Shulkin's rumored replacement, Fox and Friends host Pete Hegseth, would be impossible to confirm.
Secretary Shulkin is under fire after reports surfaced that he used taxpayer money for his wife on a trip to Europe.

Shulkin has done "a great job" as secretary, Isakson said in an interview with Politico on Monday evening. "Yes, there have been a few difficult times, but that's because we're making progress. I've talked to the president about my confidence in Shulkin."

Hegseth would be enormously difficult to confirm if he were Shulkin's replacement, said Republican sources on Capitol Hill, because certain GOP senators oppose Hegseth for his criticism of their work.

Hegseth has attacked Isakson in the past as a "so-called Republican" and a "Swamp-creature" for working with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on veterans' legislation.

With Senator John McCain (R-AZ) away receiving cancer treatments, there are currently only 50 GOP Senators able to vote on a replacement.





Are The New VA Employee Accountability Measures Being Abused?



Last June, President Donald Trump signed the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, a bipartisan bill intended to make it easier to fire employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is a very, very rare rollback of the federal government's strict civil-service job protections. This is a direct result of the many problems that in recent years at various Department of Veterans' Affairs facilities.

Proponents of the bill from both parties ensured the public that it would hold everyone-especially top officials-accountable. Department of Veterans' Affairs Secretary David Shulkin pushed the measure by highlighting an example where the VA had to wait 30 days to fire a worker caught watching porn with a patient.

"I do not see this as a tool that's going to lead to mass firings," Shulkin said last June in Politico. "I would never support that as secretary. I see this as a tool that's going to be used on a small number of people, who clearly have deviated from accepted practices and norms."

The law has undoubtedly had an effect. In the second half of 2017 firings rose 60 percent over the first half of 2017. Since June, the VA has removed 1,704 of its 377,000 employees.

But if top officials were the target of the law, a ProPublica investigation suggests the legislation misfired. In practice, the new law is overwhelmingly being used against the rank and file. Since it took effect, the VA has fired four senior leaders. The other 1,700 terminated people were low-level staffers with titles such as housekeeper (133 lost their jobs), nursing assistant (101 ousted) and food service worker (59 terminated), according to data posted by the VA.

While TREA: The Enlisted Association knows quite well that problem employees exist at all levels of an organization, the intent of the law was clearly to clean up the "culture" of the VA and to fire employees who erode the "trust" that veterans have in it. Housekeepers, food service workers and nursing assistants are not the prime culprits in creating the cultural problems at the VA.

If the VA doesn't figure out how to use the law to clean up the VA's systemic problems, the authority to quickly fire employees can leave as quickly as it came.

Some of the fired workers surely deserved it. But some were guilty of minor infractions-such as arriving late to work-things that wouldn't previously have received as harsh a punishment, according to union officials and a letter sent to Shulkin on February 26 by six Democratic senators. And there is more:

"There is evidence to suggest that it's not just junior VA staffers who are losing their jobs - whistleblowers and people who filed discrimination complaints are among those being fired, in several cases reviewed by ProPublica. That means a law intended to protect whistleblowers may be doing the opposite. Retaliating against such employees remains illegal, but the new law makes it much harder for them to defend themselves."

You can read the rest of the very long report here.


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