A pair of key Republican lawmakers want the Defense Department to start offering 24-hour child care services at military bases where alternate-shift workers are concentrated as part of an overall re-assessment of the military’s family support programs.

“There is a direct connection between the status of a military family and that servicemember’s ability or readiness to serve the country,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. “And I don’t think that the military has kept up with those challenges.”

On Thursday, Thornberry and Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss. and the senior Republican on the committee’s personnel panel, introduced new legislation dubbed the Military Family Readiness Act, which calls for the military leaders to “establish a common definition of family readiness to ensure standardization of services and assistance.”

The measure, expected to be included in the annual defense authorization bill debate later this spring, would also require Defense Department leaders develop more frequent reports on family services and create a pilot program with the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency to recruit military spouses.

Thornberry said he does not have a specific vision of what the new family readiness metrics will look like, but said it is important for military leaders to find ways to better track families’ needs and measure their ability to provide those services.

“You’ve got to pay attention to it just like you do other forms of readiness,” he said. “While you can have some variation among the services, basically everybody needs to pay attention to this.”

He said the services’ child care issues are a good example of the need for better assessment. In recent years, outside advocates have noted the long wait times for military child care at some locations, and the varied needs of families depending on their assignments.

“There are some places that we are convinced need 24-hour childcare,” he said. “And it's really a problem where that is not available. But that may not be true at every base.

“What you need (to find out) is whether childcare is available 24 hours a day for the people who need it. That’s an example of how you’ve got to dig down a little deeper to find out if we're meeting the needs of families.”

Typically, members of the armed services committee offer stand-alone military bills in advance of discussions of the annual defense authorization measure, which includes hundreds of budget and policy measures. Those items then serve as the basis for debate for inclusion in the larger bill, which has passed Congress for more than 50 consecutive years.

This year, debate on that authorization measure has been unsettled by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Committee leaders earlier this week postponed the scheduled full-committee mark-up scheduled for later this month, and are working for ways to complete the work in a new, remote setting.

Thornberry, the former chairman of the armed services committee, said lawmakers’ focus at the moment is on the military response to coronavirus, but the family readiness issues deserve attention too.

“I’m not pretending that (this bill) can fix the challenges and stresses caused by COVID-19,” he said. “But if we can put some ideas out there … then that’s a that’s a good thing for getting a better bill.”

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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