National Guard Bonus Debate Steeped in Electoral Politics

Congress appears uninterested in helping decide who should pay it back

Lawmakers like House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte touted their efforts to get the Pentagon to stop recouping excessive bonuses paid to National Guard personnel. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Lawmakers like House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte touted their efforts to get the Pentagon to stop recouping excessive bonuses paid to National Guard personnel. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 27, 2016 at 1:07pm

A Pentagon announcement Wednesday that it is suspending the recouping of excessive bonuses from National Guard personnel has only slightly cooled the congressional clamor to take prompt action to let virtually all the service members keep the money.

Never mind that Congress has known for years about the issue and has until now managed to avoid addressing it. And never mind, for now anyway, that many of those who netted thousands of dollars knew they were not entitled to it.

Some 2,000 National Guard members, mostly from California, were found to have been overpaid re-enlistment bonuses and other incentives, often a decade ago, as the Pentagon sought to boost its wartime ranks at the time, said Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the National Guard Bureau chief, at a press breakfast Wednesday. Previously reported estimates had put the number of those ordered to repay bonuses at 10,000.

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced Wednesday that the Pentagon will suspend efforts to recoup those funds — estimated at nearly $50 million — until the department’s brass comes up with a more streamlined way to review the 2,000 cases, plus more than 3,000 others that have yet to be adjudicated. Carter set a Jan. 1 deadline for creating the new review process.

But members of Congress appear uninterested in mending how the Pentagon decides who should pay it back and how much. In most cases, they prefer to essentially end the so-called clawback of funds.

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Few members of Congress are making much publicly of the fact that some of the military personnel who received money — a minority, Lengyel said — may have known full well that they were not supposed to.

The Pentagon has a process, albeit a slow one, for separating those who unwittingly received the funds from those who fraudulently accepted them, Lengyel said.

But politicians on both sides of the aisle were not focused on that nuanced point — not with less than two weeks to go until Election Day.

As a result, it appears all but a given now that Congress will by year’s end send the president legislation that would permit virtually all those who received overpayments to keep them. The defense authorization bill now in conference is one possible vehicle for such a measure, as is the new continuing resolution that will have to be advanced in December, or more likely an omnibus spending bill.

Some on Capitol Hill do not believe they need to pass legislation to resolve the problem. They believe the executive branch has the authority it needs to administratively exonerate overpaid guardsmen.

Indeed, when survivors of some guardsmen killed in the line of duty were found to have received larger benefit checks than they were entitled to under the rules, the Pentagon did not demand repayment of the overage. Instead, officials simply stopped paying too much going forward.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said this week that the California Guard snafu shows how “incompetent” the government is.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, called for legislation “to right this wrong.”

[Air Force Secretary: National Guard Needed Now More Than Ever]

“These troops deserve our support and our deepest gratitude; they served admirably and upheld their part of the bargain,” Clinton said. “It is unacceptable to now subject them and their families to undue financial burdens thanks to mismanagement from the California National Guard and rigid bureaucracy on the part of the Pentagon.”

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, several members of Congress from both parties on Wednesday called Carter’s move “temporary” and demanded a “permanent” fix that lets those who were overpaid off the hook for repayment.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California called for a “long-term” legislative solution, not just a temporary suspension of recoupment efforts.

New Hampshire GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte, an Armed Services member who is facing a difficult re-election race, said: “I again call on Secretary Carter to unambiguously commit to both the permanent elimination of any expectation of payment from individuals who were paid bonuses and fulfilled their commitment to our country as well as the full reimbursement to any such individual who has already made payments.”

“A permanent solution remains necessary, particularly if the Pentagon fails to use its existing authority to waive these repayments,” wrote California’s Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, in a joint statement Wednesday.

The senators then almost imperceptibly acknowledged that not all the guardsmen were unaware they were receiving more than they were entitled to.

[Obama Sets 2017 Troop Pay Raise at 1.6 Percent]

“When Congress returns after the election, we will introduce legislation to hold the Pentagon to its commitments,” Feinstein and Boxer said. “The small number of servicemembers who knew they weren’t supposed to receive bonuses will be exempt from the bill.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Carter’s announcement was welcome but she urged a permanent solution for those who accepted bonuses in “good faith.”

“However, we must work to permanently lift the shadow of these clawbacks and address the burden on those who have already been forced to return bonuses they accepted in good faith,” Pelosi said.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Rep. Adam B. Schiff used the same phrase in his own statement. The California Democrat applauded Carter’s move but called for “legislation to waive these debts and to provide relief to soldiers who have already repaid some or all of the bonuses they accepted in good faith. It should not fall on the shoulders of those who serve our country to pay for the mistakes of others that offered these incentives improperly or allowed the error to go undiscovered for so many years.”

That sounds good, but there will still need to be a process to differentiate between those who knew they weren’t supposed to be getting so much money and those who are exempt due to, it seems, their ignorance of the rules.

Speaking of ignorance, it is difficult to fathom that members of Congress, at least senior ones on the Armed Services panels, were unaware of this problem before this week.

The Sacramento Bee reported on California guardsmen receiving excess bonuses in 2013. The Los Angeles Times reported this week that Andreas Mueller, the California National Guard chief of federal policy, wrote to the state’s congressional delegation this week reminding them that they were told about the problem two years ago.

Pelosi blamed Republicans for knowing but failing to act. But she did not accept any responsibility on her side of the aisle.

Despite years of inaction on this issue, politicians running for re-election in November were nonetheless quick to congratulate themselves for prodding the Pentagon to do something.

For example, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin said in a statement reacting to Carter’s announcement: “I am glad the Pentagon came to its senses,” and then seemed to suggest that congressional pressure led to the change.

Ayotte appeared to hint that a letter she sent Carter on the issue might have forced his action. She issued a press release Wednesday titled, “Following Ayotte Letter, Pentagon Suspends Unacceptable Efforts to Collect Repayments From National Guard Members.”

Megan Scully contributed to this report.