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Veterans’ Needs Must Come First | Commentary

Oct. 1 marks an anniversary many of us prefer to forget — the start of the 16 day partial government shutdown of 2013. Among the disruptions caused by the shutdown, work stopped on more than 250,000 veterans’ disability claims awaiting appeals, burials at national cemeteries were scaled back and vital medical and prosthetic research projects were threatened. Had it continued a couple weeks longer, even veterans’ disability compensation checks might have stopped.

As we reflect on this unfortunate anniversary, it is clear that Congress should approve legislation ensuring that America’s veterans are never again caught in the grips of political gridlock.

The Putting Veterans Funding First Act is the vehicle to do this, by providing an advance appropriation for all Department of Veterans Affairs operations. I introduced the bill last year, and it is completely bipartisan, with five Republican and four Democratic co-sponsors. The result would be no disruptions in services for veterans in the event of any future government shutdown and no danger of cutting off veterans’ checks. No one in their right mind wants a repeat of that dark period — and the Putting Veterans Funding First Act would prevent it.

It would mean much more than that, too. Even in years when the government has stayed open, partisan paralysis has meant that VA appropriations have failed to pass on time in 24 of the past 26 fiscal years. Sometimes, the delays have stretched out for months; over the past four years, on average, the VA had to go 116 days after the start of the fiscal year before it knew how much money it had to spend for the full year.

The almost perennial delays have made it next to impossible for the VA to effectively plan and administer many services for those who have risked their lives for our country. This uncertainty, combined with funding levels well below the amount the VA calculates would be sufficient to fulfill its mission, is a major cause of many of the well-publicized problems that have afflicted the agency recently.

The approach embodied in the Putting Veterans Funding First Act is already tried and tested. To ensure care at VA medical facilities never stops, Congress passed legislation in 2009 providing an advance appropriation for the VA health care system. It has worked exactly as it was supposed to — VA clinics and hospitals stayed open during the shutdown. But that law does not cover other VA operations, including the processing of disability, pension and survivor benefits; medical information technology; medical and prosthetic research; facilities construction and maintenance; and cemetery administration. This bill simply adds these vitally important functions to the advance appropriations process.

The Putting Veterans Funding First Act has been approved by the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees with overwhelming support. Now it’s time for the congressional leadership to act. I urge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to bring this bill to the floor for a vote on the very first day Congress returns after the elections. And I urge Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to do the same in their chamber.

The sacrifice America’s veterans have made is extraordinary. I believe Congress must show its gratitude in more than words, but in deeds, too. The Putting Veterans Funding First Act will help repay the incalculable debt we owe our wounded veterans by taking them out of the political crossfire, where it never belonged in the first place.

It means that, despite dysfunction in Washington, veterans will always come first. Surely, that is the least we can do.

Sen. Mark Begich is a Democrat from Alaska.