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Area Lawmakers Make Mark On Budget, Policy Bills -- Growler Funding, Sexual Assault Prosecution

Gage Skidmore | Flickr

Were area members of Congress to sum up this session in a single word, that word would most likely be “Growler.”  The funding for 15 of Boeing’s high-tech E/A 18G Growlers, which are built in St. Louis, is included in the $1.1 trillion government funding package approved by the Senate over the weekend.

Support for the Growler is the one thing most frequently mentioned by Missouri lawmakers.  That bipartisan support helped secure nearly $1.5 billion to keep the Growler going through the end of 2017.

U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., serve on the Armed Services Committee, with Blunt also serving on the Appropriations Committee. While Blunt voted for the omnibus funding plan, McCaskill voted against the final bill, even though she has long supported the Growler.

McCaskill voted against the final package because of two provisions in the bill. One rolled back protections for what some consider risky practices on Wall Street, and the other sharply increased the amount wealthy donors can give to political parties. 

Blunt, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., all voted for the bill, but Durbin accused House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, of giving "a taxpayer handout to Wall Street just in time for the holidays." He said, he voted for the measure because it included "dozens of job-creating Illinois projects."

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, said the annual economic impact of the Growler’s construction on the state’s economy is $640 million.  Besides Boeing's 15,000 local employees, Wagner said nearly 100 local employers in the supply chain also benefit from Growler production.

Earlier this year, Wagner along with U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-University City, sent a letter to their congressional colleagues to back the construction of additional Growlers for the Navy. The plane’s advanced electronics allow the Growler to disrupt enemy radar and jam a wide spectrum of radio communications and electronic equipment.    

The Warthog has its fans

U.S. Rep. Vickie Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said Congress also approved $337 million to keep the A-10 Warthog flying through 2015, albeit with potentially reduced flying time. Hartzler, who has Whiteman Air Force Base in her district, is one of the many members of Congress fighting efforts by the Air Force to ground the plane.

Credit Hartzler campaign
Vicky Hartzler

The Air Force wants to shift maintenance personnel from the A-10 to the new F-35, but Hartzler, other members of Congress and a significant number of service members strongly back the Warthog as the only plane that provides close-cover support to U.S. ground troops.

Blunt said says that funding for the plane is safe for now, but its fate “in the coming fiscal year will continue to be an open debate.”  The Air Force did not return phone calls requesting comment.

As part of a compromise to keep the A-10 flying and help the Air force shift personnel to support the F-35, Hartzler said, the Air Force is getting an additional $350 million.  She also said that the Government Accounting Office will study what if any alternatives there are to the A-10.

Guns, butter, manufacturing and tourism

According to information provided by Blunt’s office, the funding package also includes more than $4 billion in appropriations for ammunition for all branches of the military.  Some  that funding will go to the Lake City Ammunition Plant in Independence, Mo., which supplies conventional ammunition to all military services, other government agencies and U.S. allies for training and combat purposes.

Speaking to reporters a few days before the Senate vote, Blunt also pointed to agriculture research funding that he pushed, as benefiting Missouri. More than $4 billion is being allocated to the two largest Agriculture research agencies: the Agriculture Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Two other measures co-sponsored by Blunt include legislation to boost innovation in manufacturing by funding a network of public, private and academic “hubs” across the country.  A second bill re-authorizes the so-called “Brand USA” public-private partnership to increase spending by foreign tourists visiting the U.S. In 2013, Blunt said, under Brand USA, more than a million more foreign visitors spent $3.4 billion.

Durbin identified several provisions important to the Metro East area, including $23 million to help fight crime and drug activity in East St. Louis public housing and money toward design and construction of potential levees in the East St. Louis and Wood River areas. Durbin also sponsored language in the bill to require third-party oversight of the Army Corp of Engineers while they work to fix the Wood River levee. 

National Defense Authorization Act

Every year Congress passes the National Defense Authorization Act.  The measure sets funding levels for everything from pay and benefits to how much the Pentagon may spend on military operations along with establishing congressional policy priorities for the military.

Credit Wikipedia
Liberty Memorial in Kansas City

Last year McCaskill sponsored sweeping changes in how the military deals with sexual assault cases. A Pentagon report released earlier this month showed that reporting of such cases is up and that victims of sexual assault are significantly more satisfied with how commanders are handling their cases.

This year’s bill includes several more sexual assault reforms sponsored by McCaskill, along with several other provisions. The additional measures addressing sexual assault include:

  • Eliminating the “good soldier” defense in must sexual assault cases
  • Allowing victims the ability to express a preference as to whether their cases will be tried in military or civilian court 
  • Allowing survivors to challenge their discharge or separation from service
  • Extending sexual assault protections to the Military Service Academies

Other of McCaskill's provisions prohibit tax dollars from funding certain infrastructure projects in Afghanistan.  To receive U.S. funding, projects greater than $1 million would have to be sustainable and subject to annual audits and inspections.
“For too long, we’ve been spending millions of dollars on projects in Afghanistan that can’t be responsibly secured or maintained,” McCaskill said.

Another provision backed by McCaskill would require health insurance for service members and their families to cover breast-feeding equipment, support and counseling.  Such coverage is available in most private health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

POW/MIA recovery and accounting efforts will be assigned to a single agency under the Pentagon rather than dispersed across several agencies. McCaskill said this provision would address mismanagement and a lack of accountability.

Finally, Blunt, McCaskill and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, sponsored companion measures in the NDAA, to designate Liberty Memorial in Kansas City the country’s official World War I Museum and Memorial.

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