In the News

House agrees to lift military COVID mandate in exchange for raises, funding for Louisiana

The Advocate: Mark Ballard

A major concession by Democrats to end requiring military personnel to get COVID vaccinations clears the way for funding that includes a 4.6% pay raise for military personnel, more realistic combat training in Vernon Parish, allow B-52s to load nuclear warheads in Bossier Parish and upgrade Louisiana National Guard facilities in Abbeville and New Orleans.

On a vote of 350 to 80, the U.S. House Thursday approved the House Amendment to the Senate Amendment to H.R. 7776. The James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 includes $847 billion for salaries, training, weapons and everything else needed to run a modern military for the next 12 months.

The Senate needs to approve the deal as well and is expected to do so in the next few days.

“This NDAA contains important provisions to specifically ensure that Louisiana’s service members are in the best position possible to carry out their duties, including over a quarter of $1 billion in important military construction projects,Louisiana U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson said. “This was a bipartisan process, with members of both parties working together to get this bill across the finish line. I’m particularly encouraged by the bipartisan understanding that the Biden Administration’s disastrous military vaccine mandate created the worst recruitment and retention period in the history of our military.”

The “must-pass” annual legislation has been timely approved by Congress each of the past 60 years. This year, however, the National Defense Authorization Act stalled because of partisan bickering over what Republicans called the Pentagon’s “woke” policies – the main one being mandating military personnel to be vaccinated against COVID-19. About 37,000 troops were discharged for refusing to be vaccinated.

As late as last weekend, the Pentagon and the Biden Administration voiced their opposition to rescinding the vaccination order, arguing that America’s fighting force needs to remain healthy and ready – particularly in light of a coronavirus that has killed more than a million people.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican positioned to become speaker of the house in January if he can persuade enough conservative Republicans to vote for him, vowed on Fox News over the weekend that the National Defense Authorization Act would not pass unless the mandate was removed.

At the tip of the Republican’s anti-vaccination spear is Johnson, a member of the House Armed Services committee who lives a few miles from Barksdale Air Force Base, headquarters of the Air Force Global Strike Command and a key part of the nation’s Air Combat Command. He also represents the U.S. Army’s Fort Polk, near Leesville, which is home to the Joint Readiness Training Center and several combat units.

Johnson has pushed to repeal the vaccination mandate almost from the moment Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III put his pen to the August 2021 memo ordering the shots for most troops. Austin's memo was issued as COVID’s Delta variant took off and protection efforts nationwide renewed the widely disliked closures, masking, social distancing and other protections.

Johnson introduced legislation, wrote letters and demanded answers on different aspects of the vaccinations. In 2021, he and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz led 47 House and Senate Republicans in filing a friend of the court brief in support of 35 Navy officials who sought vaccination exemptions on religious grounds.

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Baton Rouge Republican who also is a physician, said that from what he has read, the studies show that the latest booster shot doesn’t prevent infections.

"It just decreases the instances of hospitalization," Cassidy said. "But if you look at the people who are military service age, they do not have an increased instance of hospitalization with or without the booster dose, so I do think there’s a rationale for what’s being pushed.”

U.S. Rep. Julia Letlow, R-Start, agreed. “Repealing the vaccine mandate for our troops is the right thing to do,” she said.

“Biden’s vaccine mandate on our military service members has been a key reason causing recruitment to dramatically drop more than 25 percent in our armed forces. This mandate poses long term threats to our military, and is hurting our efforts to address the real threats around the world like China,” said Republican Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson.

“Our servicemembers deserve to be paid appropriately and have the best equipment and technology we can invest in," added Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge. "The legislation also repeals the COVID-19 vaccine mandate that numerous active-duty military constituents have reached out to our office expressing concerns about and has even challenged recruitment efforts. Even President Biden said three months ago that the pandemic was over – it’s time to stop punishing those serving and protecting our freedoms."

Democratic U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, who lives in Algiers, said repealing the vaccine mandate is a mistake.

“It is concerning that Republicans in Congress have ultimately decided that instead of protecting our troops, they would rather play political games and fight against their health and well-being,” Carter said.

But Carter said he favors the legislation because of the funding tied to it.

The legislation includes nearly $735 million to support the nation’s B-52 bomber fleet that carries nuclear and conventional ordinance. The B-52s can carry air-launched cruise missiles, which are old and being replaced with new long-range standoff missiles at a cost of about $929 million.

For Louisiana, the measure includes:

$125 million: Construction of a Weapons Generation Facility at Barksdale Air Force Base to allow weapons to again be loaded onto aircrafts. Follow $40 million secured last year for the project.
$61 million: Construction of a new Joint Operations Center at the Fort Polk Joint Readiness Training Center to update the command station for realistic training activities. Builds on $55 million secured last year for the project.
$41 million: Construction of a new Child Development Center at Fort Polk that will replace three older centers to handle more than 300 children.
$35.36 million: Update the Information System Facility at Fort Polk, which involves mechanical and data sharing systems that enhance combat training.
$1.65 million: Planning and design work for an Army National Guard Readiness Center in Abbeville.
$1.65 million: Planning and design work for an Air National Guard Munitions Administrative Facility in New Orleans.