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Opinion: McCain’s Legacy of Stronger Military Reflected in Senate’s Landmark Defense Bill

This year’s NDAA could be a big win for military personnel and their families

Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, left, hands the gavel to House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry before a National Defense Authorization Act conference meeting in October. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, left, hands the gavel to House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry before a National Defense Authorization Act conference meeting in October. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain has served on the committee for over three decades, helping it draft and pass dozens of National Defense Authorization Acts — some seemingly routine, others carrying historic significance.

This year’s NDAA, the annual policy bill for the Defense Department, has the potential to rank among the latter. Many provisions in the Senate version, drafted under McCain’s leadership, would have a positive long-term effect on military readiness, servicemember satisfaction and, crucially, the well-being of military families, who are often overlooked.

But first, the bill must overcome significant discrepancies between the House and Senate drafts, which are currently going through the conference process to settle on legislation that could pass both chambers.

The Senate version would authorize several reforms in keeping with McCain’s long history of making sure the military, and the men and women in uniform, are a priority on Capitol Hill.

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Modernizing manpower

It modernizes the military’s officer personnel management system. The measures, developed after in-depth hearings and in close consultation with the Pentagon, would represent the first major statutory reform since the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980, signed into law by President Jimmy Carter (only three years before McCain first entered Congress in 1983). At issue is how the military organizes its officer corps, currently a “one-size-fits-all” personnel system. This approach, developed during World War II and largely codified more than 70 years ago, was designed, built, and tested for the Cold War. It specifically allowed the military to rapidly accrue “young” and “vigorous” officers in preparation for the threat of large-scale ground conflict with the Soviet Union.

Things have changed. According to the 2018 National Defense Strategy, we are living in “a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory.” The diverse range of threats facing the United States from cyberattacks to terrorism generate a wide range of manpower demands that were not envisioned before the 9/11 era. The Senate NDAA proposes meaningful reforms to officer personnel management that would add flexibility to the currently rigid officer career path.

“The question is whether our military is able to recruit and retain so many excellent Americans because of our personnel system, or in spite of it. I’m concerned that all too often it’s the latter,” McCain once said at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Support for spouses

The Senate legislation also provides much needed support for military spouses. The unemployment rate among military spouses is nearly quadruple the civilian unemployment rate. Frequent moves and a lack of access to affordable child care make holding down a job difficult. Additionally, there are significant state-specific barriers to employment in occupational licensing and credentialing. A spouse certified in one state can have difficulty finding employment in another state with different licensing and credentialing requirements. Spousal employment is not only an issue for military families, but for military readiness. The stresses of military life, due to inadequate spousal employment opportunities and a lack of child care, cause many servicemembers to leave the military.

The Senate NDAA takes several concrete steps to address these crucial issues by expanding noncompetitive federal appointments for spouses, raising awareness of on-base resources to support licensing portability, and increasing the availability of child care services. These reforms have the potential not only to improve the day-to-day lives of military families, but also to reduce servicemember stressors and enhance military readiness.

The Senate bill also includes further provisions that would positively shape the future of America’s military. These include expanded punitive measures to deal with domestic violence and sexual assault, and the establishment of on-base teams and training to promote safe child care practices. The Senate committee also recommends several special reports on improvements to credentialing for military spouses, military child care subsidies, a mental health pilot program, and an investigation into the effect frequent relocations have on military families.

Leaders in both chambers want to have an NDAA on President Donald Trump’s desk by the end of July, which doesn’t leave much time to consider all the needed reforms. But congressional leaders should keep in mind that many of these changes, if not all, have been recommended by experts with a wide range of ideological and political views over a long period of time.

If passed, a National Defense Authorization Act that incorporates these long-needed reforms to the military’s personnel system would be historic. In a fast-changing world, it would help the U.S. meet its national security requirements and improve the lives of countless military families.

Gen. Jim Jones is a former national security adviser under President Barack Obama.

Leon Panetta is a former Defense secretary and CIA director under President Barack Obama.

Kathy Roth-Douquet is the CEO of Blue Star Families.

Jim Talent is a former Republican senator and congressman from Missouri.

All four co-chair the BPC’s Task Force on Defense Personnel.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

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