A Veterans’ Congress

Returning War Vets on Top of Agenda in 111th

Posted October 8, 2008 at 10:49am

Conventional wisdom used to hold that the military is so firmly Republican that Congressional Democrats have little to gain by courting veterans. But in an era of discord over Iraq and Afghanistan — and at a time when the public increasingly realizes that the Department of Veterans Affairs has problems — that conventional wisdom has become rather stale.

The influx of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan has given Democrats the chance to balance out their votes against the Iraq War by sending billions of additional dollars toward veterans care.

Although the Iraq War has recently taken a back seat to the souring economy on Capitol Hill, Democrats haven’t lost a step in boosting spending on veterans.

“Going forward with increasing funding over the past two

years will provide major improvements for vets for years to come,” said Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies.

Edwards says he will continue to push for additional funding for veterans services and ensure that the VA is spending its budget wisely and effectively.

Regardless of whether Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) or Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) — himself an ex-prisoner of war — wins the 2008 presidential race, an overhaul of the VA is expected to be part of the next administration’s agenda.

At the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ annual conference in August, McCain and Obama appeared separately before the crowd in bids to woo support. Both candidates promised to streamline the VA’s health care system and improve the quality of life for the nation’s veterans.

“I’m not here to tell you that there is a cost that is too high to be paid in the care of our nation’s veterans,” McCain told the audience.

“I will make sure that Congress funds the VA health care budget in a sufficient, timely and predictable manner,” he said.

“But I will say that every increase in funding must be matched by increases in accountability, both at the VA and in Congress,” McCain continued.

“And this requires an end to certain practices and abuses that serve neither our veterans, our country nor the reputation of Congress itself.”

One proposal that could gain traction next year, in part because McCain and Obama have both signed on, is a bid to change the VA’s budgeting process.

House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Bob Filner (D-Calif.) said in an interview that one of his top priorities is getting Congress to pass the department’s budget a year in advance.

“This would guarantee stability and timeliness,” Filner said.

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Filner have introduced legislation that would accelerate the timing of the spending bill in their respective chambers.

“Advance funding for veterans’ health care is better for veterans, taxpayers and VA,” Akaka said in a recent announcement. “Funding would be set two years in advance, enabling VA to make strategic long-term decisions.”

Shortly before fiscal 2009 began, President Bush signed the Consolidated Security, Disaster Assistance and Continuing Appropriations Act — commonly known as the continuing resolution, a stopgap funding measure.

The CR fully funded the VA and military construction for fiscal 2009, which began on Oct. 1.

That portion of the legislation totals $118.9 billion and provides $72.9 billion in discretionary spending — $47.6 billion for the VA, $25 billion for military construction, family housing and base closure and realignment, and $207.3 million for related agencies.

It was $3.6 billion more than the Bush administration’s request and $9 billion more than the fiscal 2008 bill.

If the Akaka-Filner legislation had been adopted, the president would have already signed the fiscal 2010 budget and the VA could begin planning how it would spend the money.

Although the two-year budget plan has bipartisan support, other proposals are more controversial.

One proposal by Akaka is to push for more VA funding for troops who lost limbs or suffered brain damage.

“I would say if we could get an additional $1 billion … the VA would be in good shape,” Akaka said in an interview.

Akaka said Democrats believe that additional spending for veterans should be considered a “cost of the war.” He said more money could come in annual spending bills or be tacked onto emergency war spending measures.

However, some lawmakers, including Senate Veterans’ Affairs ranking member Richard Burr (R-N.C.), are not eager to see significant increases in VA spending because they believe the lawmakers are properly funding VA now.

Although lawmakers have managed to bulk up the Bush administration’s requests for veterans programs, VA Secretary James Peake said at a breakfast with reporters in August that the department is properly funded.

He added that any additional money needs to be put in the right place.

“When you start looking at health care, it’s extremely complex,” Peake said.“I would put some of it into [information technology] support to make sure we continue to have the best electronic patient records. We have facilities, things we would invest” in.

“In a system that has 270,000 people and 1,400 physical locations … there’s always money you can put into it,” Peake added. “But I don’t feel constrained right now in terms of having the resources to be able to provide the care.”

According to Edwards’ office, the VA has added 2,018 doctors and 6,549 nurses in the past two years, thanks to the larger budgets.

“The VA is a bureaucracy, but a very necessary bureaucracy,” said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies.