Appropriations Markup Puts GOP in Tough Position Of Balancing Defense, Veterans Spending

Posted April 14, 2015 at 4:54pm

The Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill House appropriators planned to mark up Wednesday clearly illustrates the dilemma of Republican congressional leaders this year in trying to hold the line or reduce spending while not shortchanging their most sacrosanct areas of government — national defense and the care of veterans.

The subcommittee was working from a bill (HR 1735) that would provide $76.6 billion in discretionary spending, which would be $4.6 billion more than Congress appropriated for fiscal 2015, but $1.2 billion less than President Barack Obama sought, the Appropriations Committee said in a statement.

Likewise, the $7.7 billion subtotal that goes to military construction and family housing programs is $904 million above the fiscal 2015 enacted level, but it’s $755 million below the administration’s request.

The increase above the current spending level could give fiscal conservatives heartburn. But the programs at issue, such as facilities for U.S. troops and medical care for veterans, are broadly popular and difficult to cut.

“This bill ensures that our nation’s veterans, servicemen and women, and their families have the benefits and resources they richly deserve,” Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said in the statement. “It provides funding for essential construction projects to advance the effectiveness of our missions, allows military families access to the services they need every day, and goes above and beyond to ensure proper and timely benefits for our veterans.”

Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Charlie Dent, the new chairman of the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee, said the measure “demonstrates our firm commitment to fully supporting the nation’s veterans and servicemembers at every phase.”

The bill provides $163.2 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs when mandatory spending programs are included. The measure allocates $48.6 billion for VA medical services alone.

Several hundred million dollars of the VA total is dedicated to reducing the backlog of veterans waiting to get their disability claims processed.

An Unhealthy Record

Another major concern for lawmakers has been melding the electronic health records of the VA and those of the Defense Department, an initiative that has suffered from numerous setbacks. Spending for the VA’s portion of that program would be $233 million under the new bill, but the legislation would restrict those funds until the department shows progress in implementing the new system.

Rogers tells a story of a soldier who had one functioning eye and lost his vision because VA doctors could not get his medical records from the Pentagon and so could not perform surgery that might have saved his sight. That kind of problem has spurred lawmakers to make it a priority to improve the electronic records system.

The bill would provide the same level of spending for construction projects as Congress enacted this year — $968 million. In response to what the appropriators’ statement calls “egregious project mismanagement and cost overruns,” the new bill would limit transfers between construction projects, require reports on bid savings, reduce changes in the scope of construction projects and restrict the agency from taking certain spending actions without notifying Congress.

The Government Accountability Office reported this year on recurring cost overruns and schedule delays in VA construction. These include a $1.7 billion hospital being built in Aurora, Colo., that is about $1 billion over budget and among the more expensive hospitals in the world.

Rebuilding Program

As for military construction programs, even though the bill falls short of the president’s request, it would nonetheless restore this spending to a level closer to what it was before a one-third cutback a year ago. The $7.7 billion proposed for the coming fiscal year is not the nearly $10 billion enacted in fiscal 2014, but it’s higher than the roughly $6.8 billion appropriated in fiscal 2015.

Within the $7.7 billion recommendation is $1.4 billion for military family housing, the committee said.

Of the $7.7 billion for military construction, about $532 million is funded in the Overseas Contingency Operations account, the money set aside for fighting wars, the committee said. That’s important because the war budget is not capped by budget law, as the rest of the federal discretionary budget is. So putting a fraction of the money in the war account relieves members of the duty to find that much in offsets within the limited defense budget.

The measure also includes perennial provisions barring the administration from transferring Guantánamo Bay detainees to U.S. mainland prisons. The bill forbids use of its money to “construct, renovate or expand” prisons in the United States or its possessions and territories for such purposes.

Obama has protested such provisions because they restrict his options as he seeks to close the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, prison, a goal he would like to accomplish prior to leaving office but one that Republicans are bent to block.