Congress Set for Vote to Rescind COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate for Troops

The mandate for members of the U.S. military to receive the Covid-19 vaccine would be rescinded in the annual bill for defense spending that is headed this week for a Congressional vote. It would end the directive that raised concerns that it harmed retention and recruitment and ensured that most troops were vaccinated. 

Emboldened by their new majority in the House next year, Republicans pushed the effort, which was confirmed the same night it was unveiled. GOP leader in the House, Kevin McCarthy, lobbied President Biden personally in a meeting last week to discuss rolling back the mandate.

GOP Representative Mike Rogers of Alabama, the ranking House Armed Services Committee Republican, said the vaccination requirement must be removed for the defense policy bill to progress. 

“We have real recruitment and retention problems across all services. This was gas on the fire exacerbating our existing problem,” said Rogers. “And the president said, you know, the pandemic is over. It’s time for us to recognize that and remove this unnecessary policy.”

Karine Jean-Pierre, White House press secretary, said that the president told McCarthy he would consider lifting the mandate; however, Lloyd Austin, Defense Secretary, had recommended it stay in place.

“I would remind all of you that the Pentagon has a range of vaccines it has long required,” said Jean-Pierre. “So, this is nothing new.”

The annual defense bill provides a roadmap for future investments and sets policy. The House is looking to wrap up the acrimonious differences this week and send it on to the Senate. It is one of the final bills expected to be approved before Congress adjourns. 

DoD pay increase; review of suicide in armed forces

The Defense Department’s civilian workforce and service members would receive a 4.6% pay increase, according to the bill summary that was recently released. The legislation also requires a mandatory review of the suicide rate in the Armed Forces since September 11, 2001. The study will have the data broken down by occupational specialty, grade, and service. It would also require the rescinding of the Covid-19 vaccination mandate. 

Leaders in the military acknowledge that the Covid-19 vaccine requirement is one factor affecting recruiting, causing difficulty. The Army missed its recruiting goal by around 25%, while the other branches narrowly scraped by. It needs to be discovered how much the vaccine mandate is dissuading recruits. 

Austin issued a memorandum in August 2021 mandating the vaccine. The memo directed the secretaries of the U.S.’s various military branches to require and administer complete vaccination to all active duty, Reserve, and National Guard members of the Armed Forces. Boosters are not required. 

When Austin was asked about the mandate, he told reporters he still supports the vaccine for American troops. 

“We lost a million people to this virus. A million people died in the United States of America. We lost hundreds of DoD. So, this mandate has kept people healthy,” said Austin. 

As of early December, around 99% of all active-duty Air Force, Marines, and Navy troops had been vaccinated, along with 98% of the Army. Service members who have not been vaccinated are not allowed to deploy, in particular, Marines or sailors on ships. There are some exceptions, religious or otherwise, and the member’s duty. 

In the Coast Guard, vaccination numbers are lower, hovering around 90%.

More than 8,000 active-duty service members were discharged for refusing the vaccine, which was considered a failure to obey a lawful order. 

The Marine Corps, which is significantly smaller than the Navy, Army, and Air Force, hugely outpaces the other branches in the number of troops discharged. As of early this month, the Marine Corps has discharged 3,717 this year. The largest service, the Army, has discharged more than 1,800, followed by the 1,600 pushed out of the Navy. The Air Force, including Space Force, discharged 834.

The services were criticized over the past year for only approving a small number of applications for religious exemptions to the vaccine requirement. 

Military leaders continue to stand their ground, arguing that for decades, troops have been required to get as many as 17 vaccines to keep the force healthy, especially those deploying overseas.