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In defense spending bill,a map around congressional gridlock

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2011

It's quite amazing what Congress can do when there is bipartisan agreement among the leadership and public attention is focused elsewhere.

Consider this: It passed a single piece of legislation that deals with controversial subjects such as health-care costs, gun control and environmental problems, but the bill went through the House and the Senate under unanimous consent agreements - with hardly a murmur during the lame-duck session.

Of course, I am referring to the rapid approval of the 924-page, $726 billion National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2011, which was loaded with hundreds of special provisions added by lawmakers. But because it had the blessing of the ranking Republicans on the House and the Senate Armed Services committees, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the word "earmark" was never mentioned.

The provisions include freezing military and retiree co-payments through 2011 at 2006 levels for service members' medical care program, Tricare, as well as for the purchase of drugs, even from local pharmacies. It also freezes costs for inpatient hospital care. By comparison, health premiums for civilian federal employees and retirees will grow an average of 7.2 percent this year.

The freeze in the defense spending bill was accompanied by a provision requiring the comptroller general to carry out a detailed study of the "additional cost to the Department of Defense associated with compliance" with President Obama's health-care legislation passed last year. A report, to be delivered by Sept. 30, should include estimates of the "additional cost, if any" incurred in the Pentagon's purchase of medical supplies and equipment, health-care services, drugs and health-care-related information technology.

These provisions passed as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is trying to limit the growth in Pentagon health-care costs in the fiscal 2012 budget and weeks after Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that it is time to raise Tricare fees.

The defense authorization bill also contains a gun-control section that prohibits the defense secretary from requiring military personnel or civilian Defense Department employees to register privately owned guns stored in their homes outside military installations. It seems that in the wake of the Fort Hood shooting, a Defense Department independent review recommended a look at registering privately owned firearms by military personnel. Commanders of several bases, including Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Bliss, Tex., required registration of guns of personnel living off post. At Fort Riley, Kan., regulations required registration of guns owned not only by military personnel living off base but also by family members living in Kansas.

The National Rifle Association responded with outrage, and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) added an amendment to the bill, calling for the destruction of registration records of guns held off bases created as a result of regulations instituted by local commanders. It did permit the Defense Department to continue to set rules for carrying weapons while on duty, in uniform or on a military installation.

The Inhofe provision also called for a review "of the privately owned weapons policy of the Department of Defense, including legal and policy issues regarding the regulation of privately owned firearms off of a military installation, as recommended by" the Pentagon's Fort Hood review. That report and recommendations are to be sent to the House and the Senate Armed Services committees.

Faced with numerous reports of exposure to environmental hazards on military bases, and facing possible claims for subsequent health conditions, the authorization bill ordered the comptroller general to investigate the situation.

The Navy and the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have been working together for almost 20 years studying the volatile organic compounds in groundwater and drinking water at the Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune, N.C. While there is data about how chemicals have affected the base's water between 1957 and 1987, there are questions about how those who drank it, bathed in it and cooked with it were affected.

In May, the Department of Veterans Affairs released a fact sheet saying that a government study begun in 2005 was still evaluating "whether children of mothers who were exposed while pregnant to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune are at an increased risk of spina bifida, anencephaly, cleft lip or cleft palate, and childhood leukemia or non-Hodgkin's lymphoma."

Meanwhile, the defense bill pressed the Navy to turn over data it has on the Camp Lejeune situation to investigators, although the legislation prohibits funds from being used to adjudicate pending claims without first notifying the committee.

The comptroller general was given until Jan.1, 2012, to report on how the Defense Department responds to such environmental hazards on its installations and how it processes claims from current and former members of the armed forces, their dependents and civilian employees who seek compensation and health benefits for exposures.

More than 100,000 Marines and their families have signed up on a Camp Lejeune Water Study Registry that was created more than three years ago by the Navy secretary and the the Marine Corps commandant. At that time, they announced that they were "committed to reaching all former residents that may have been exposed to unregulated chemicals in the base drinking water between 1957 and 1987."


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