Press Release

Contact: Mokie Pratt Porter, Communications Director 202-628-2700 Ext. 146

VVA DECRIES CONGRESS' FAVORING HIGHWAYS OVER DISABLED VETS

WASHINGTON, D.C. (March 31, 1998)

Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) appealed to Congress today to abandon its consideration of building pork-barrel transportation projects on the backs of disabled veterans. In a letter to every member of the House and Senate, VVA National President George C. Duggins decried this as unethical and potentially unconstitutional public policy. "The transportation bill currently before the House and Senate would have dire effects on VA spending for disabled veterans. This is because a budget gimmick would allow Congress to save $10.5 billion by abolishing tobacco-related VA disability benefits, and then turn around and spend these monies on the budget- busting transportation bill."

Since last year, the Administration has advocated cutting veterans disability benefits for tobacco-related illnesses because they are expensive and inconvenient to process. Some in Congress seem intent on stealing these monies away from veterans programs for other federal spending priorities.

VVA also testified before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on March 31, that the military was culpable in veterans becoming addicted to cigarettes, and therefore these are bona fide service-connected disabilities. "Unlike alcohol use," said VVA Benefits Program Director Bill Russo, "the military gave out free samples of cigarettes and provided on-duty opportunities to smoke. Tobacco use was actively encouraged and subsidized in the military, therefore nicotine addiction is not ‘willful misconduct.' Furthermore, veterans are being singled out for unfair treatment; other federal beneficiaries--like Social Security disability recipients--will continue to receive compensation for tobacco-related illnesses."

VVA is very concerned that neither the House nor the Senate versions of the transportation bill specify the funding offsets which will be required for implementation. This shelters individual members from having to choose between disabled veterans benefits and the highway, bridge and mass transit projects included in the bill. The difficulty the veterans community faces is that nearly every Member of Congress has funding for a transportation project in their state/district in the bill. So most elected officials do not want to vote against the transportation bill for fear they will lose this special pork-barrel project that they believe their constituents want.

The general strategy of the leadership and transportation bill supporters, it seems, is to pass both bills without the necessary offsets, thereby shielding individual members from voting on the potentially controversial program cuts. The offsets--including a $10.5 billion slice from VA compensation for disabled veterans--would somehow magically appear in the conference agreement. Members of Congress would then have no opportunity to strike this highly offensive language.

The veterans community, with nine of the largest veterans organizations speaking in a unified voice, denounced the pending action as absolutely wrong public policy. "Don't Rob America's Veterans Again!" blasted a half-page joint advertisement in today's Washington Post. "Congress has already slashed billions from veterans' health and benefits programs, only to spend the money elsewhere... Here's our advice [to Congress]: Quit your own bad habit of continually robbing veterans' programs."

"Rest assured that finger pointing and blame shifting will not appease American veterans, nor the voting public," Duggins' letter went on. "While the transportation bill itself does not currently impose cuts to veterans programs, you are certainly aware that Congress will have to designate offsets at some point in the future to pay for the grandiose transportation spending. Any effort to take the money away from veterans tobacco-related compensation, in order to pay for pork-barrel transportation projects is an absolute outrage. This is election-year politics at its worst."

Congress must not support this outrageous proposal; Don't Rob America's Veterans!

Vietnam Veterans of America is the nation's only congressionally chartered veterans service organization dedicated solely to the needs of Vietnam-era veterans and their families. VVA's founding principle is "Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another."



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