WASHINGTON––The Senate could vote as early as Thursday on a defense bill that includes provisions to help solve mold and rat problems in military housing in Oklahoma, as well as establish a Space Force as a branch of the U.S. military.
Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) sponsored the National Defense Authorization Act and led the effort to reach a compromise on the bill, which passed the House Wednesday by a vote of 377-48, after months of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
A House-Senate conference committee that included Inhofe and U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.) earlier this week agreed on a final version of the bill that would create guidelines to reform the management and oversight of privatized housing on military bases.
Prior to the agreement, both Inhofe and Horn participated in hearings last week regarding military housing problems. Horn questioned Rick Taylor, CEO of Balfour Beatty Campus Solutions, a Tinker Air Force base housing contractor, during a hearing last Thursday about issues like mold and rats that have been reported by tenants at Tinker.
“We have made significant changes in the way we are conducting our business,” said Taylor during the hearing.
During the questioning, Horn said a Nov. 20 report showed that maintenance reports from Balfour Beatty were falsified in order for the company to obtain compensation. Between 2016 and 2017 alone, Horn said, there were over 65 cases of falsified maintenance reports at Tinker and two other Air Force bases in the U.S.
“I thought it was just at Tinker Air Force Base. Then I checked, and we went to other establishments that we have around the state of Oklahoma. Fort Sill was the next one, and we found out we had problems there too,” said Inhofe. “Then we went beyond Oklahoma and found that this is a problem nationwide.”
Inhofe said that the bill gives contractors a limited time to fix housing issues. If these issues are not solved by the given time, the contract will be taken away and given to a separate company.
The defense bill also includes a Tenant Bill of Rights that would set minimum livability standards and would require greater communication and transparency with tenants regarding housing management.
“I consider this NDAA a first important step in protecting our families, but there's a lot more work to do, and we will continue to do that,” said Horn.
At Tinker, servicemembers are not required to live on base, but Inhofe said, on some bases, servicemembers have no other choice.
“In some places you can't live off base. I mean, it's a supply-and-demand thing. If they don't have adequate housing elsewhere, that's why they have on-base housing,” said Inhofe.
Both Horn and Inhofe have been outspoken about privatized military housing issues since returning to Washington after the August recess.
“It all started at Tinker Air Force Base, and it's just an absolute disaster,” said Inhofe.
The bipartisan decision to finalize the defense bill came after Democrats agreed to support the establishment of the U.S. Space Force in exchange for Republicans agreeing to include 12 weeks of paid family leave for federal workers in the bill.
“The Space Force is actually an important part of this. We cannot actively and effectively defend our nation and work in forward battle spaces without space,” said Horn. “It is a critical component, and it becomes even more so with more players getting into space.”
Space Force would become the sixth armed service in the U.S., and it would fall under the U.S. Air Force, similar to the way the Marines is under the Department of the Navy.
“What it's going to allow the Air Force to do is consolidate its responsible use of taxpayer dollars and is going to help all of our services, wherever they are in the work they're doing, because every single person relies on space, as we all do in our day-to-day lives,” said Horn.
Inhofe said establishing a Space Force was one of the priorities of President Donald Trump since he assumed the presidency in 2017.
“We are doing a good job in space, but we're competing now with Russia and China,” said Inhofe. “We were way ahead of China and Russia during the beginning of the Obama administration, but because of the fact that he was not interested in that (space), both China and Russia passed us up.”
The defense bill also included a 3.1 percent pay raise, the largest in a decade, for military service members.
Inhofe said the bill is expected to be voted on this week, and it has passed in Congress for the last 58 consecutive years.
Gaylord News is a reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.