The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

March/April 2005
GOVERNMENT RELATIONS
 
 

Battles of the Budget

BY AVERY TAYLOR, CHAIR, VVA GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS COMMITTEE,
WITH VVA GOVERNMENT RELATIONS STAFF

The House Budget Committee met in public session on February 8 in a jam-packed hearing room in the Cannon House Office Building, a space seemingly dominated by photographers focusing their cameras. Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) spoke about the economic gains under the stewardship of President Bush. Despite an estimated $521- illion deficit for FY05, the Chairman claimed a deficit reduction of $109 billion when the final figures come in. “We were able to limit the growth of spending by Washington,” Chairman Nussle said. “That is the key to getting back to fiscal sanity. We have to eliminate some of the wasteful spending we’ve accumulated.” When he checked off the “urgent needs” that would be met by the President’s budget proposal, veterans were not among them.

This budget, he said, would “slow spending while meeting priorities.” The priorities, of course, are defense and homeland security. For just about all the other discretionary programs, the budget would “hold the increase under the rate of inflation,” he promised.

Looking at the same set of “facts” delineated in the President’s budget proposal, Rep. Jack Spratt (D-N.C.), the Ranking Member of the committee, rejoined that the Bush administration had turned the $236 billion surplus inherited from the Clinton administration into an estimated $5.6 trillion deficit over the next ten years. He decried the fact that the debt ceiling had been boosted four times by an aggregate total of $2,234 billion during the past four years. He noted that the budget proposal does not include the burgeoning costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rep. Spratt made the case that no one can argue that the funding for veterans health care and other discretionary programs are the cause of the deficits. He cited as the main culprits the steep tax cuts made during a time of war and significant increases in defense spending, not to mention the cost of the privatization of Social Security.

“This budget,” he intoned, “will put us on the path to a Mount Everest of mounting debt.”

In his testimony, Office of Management & Budget Director Joshua Botten neglected to address directly the funding of programs to assist veterans. It was in the statements and questions put to him by members of the committee that he had to defend what in effect is a decrease in funding programs for veterans, specifically veterans’ health care.

Other members also criticized the Administration’s proposed budget, including Chet Edwards (D-Texas), who pointed out that it would be veterans, not millionaires, who would bear the “sacrifice in this budget.” Other comments included those by Harold Ford, Jr., (D- Tenn.), who said, “It is not fair and it is not right to tax veterans earning $30,000 by charging them a $250 user fee.”

The budget battles had begun. They have continued over the last several weeks. Both the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs Committees voted initially to recommend the Administration’s proposal of a “user fee” for Priority 7 and 8 veterans (veterans with no service-connected disabilities). This fee would be $230 for the Priority 7 veterans; Priority 8 veterans would pay, on a sliding scale, up to $500 to receive care and treatment at a VA health care facility.

In the Senate, Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) ultimately added $414 million to the administration request, with no user fee and no increase in co-payments for pharmaceuticals or services. New Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Larry Craig (R-Idaho), after listening closely to the annual testimony of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, and others, said to the veteran leaders, “I hear you.”

On the House side, what has happened since the opening round of hearings and maneuvers is that the Budget Committee recommended, and the House of Representatives voted initially to recommend, a budget that was virtually identical with the administration request. Instead of taking action on the user fee and the increased co-payments for prescription drugs, however, the House Budget Resolution leaves that tough task up to the Authorization Committee to handle, within the budget parameters set by the full House in a 218 to 214 vote.

MAJOR REORGANIZATION

Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), on February 9, called for a major reorganization of the structure of the House Appropriations Committee “in order to streamline and expedite the consideration of the annual appropriations bills.” Full approval by the Committee and by the House of Representatives was a foregone conclusion.

In the Senate, however, this revision in the budget process has not been greeted with unquestioning assent. The February 10 issue of Roll Call, a daily publication that covers the goings-on in Congress, reported that “Senate Republican appropriators resoundingly rejected a revised House proposal to reduce from 13 to 10 the number of Appropriations subcommittees.

“Saying they wanted Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran R-Miss.) to negotiate further changes with his House counterpart, Rep. Jerry Lewis, most Senators leaving a meeting of the panel's Republicans this afternoon said they would definitely not go along with the House plan as it currently stands. Senators said their overwhelming consensus was to keep 13 subcommittees in their chamber, though perhaps with some modifications that would make it easier to reconcile spending bills in conference committee.’’

What would this reorganization mean for veterans? Veterans Affairs would be divorced from Housing and Urban Development, NASA, and Independent Agencies and be placed with Military Quality of Life in a subcommittee to be chaired by Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.). Also transferred from the current VA-HUD subcommittee would be the American Battle Monuments Commission, Arlington Cemetery, and the Court  of Appeals for Veterans Claims; and from the current Defense subcommittee the Basic Allowance for Housing, Facilities Sustainment, Repairs and Modernization, Defense Health programs, and Environmental programs.

After more than a month of negotiations and discussions, the Senate ultimately went along with the reorganization plan adopted by the House, reducing the number of Subcommittees of Appropriations to 10 from 13.

VVA believes that this reorganization pits appropriations for veterans against appropriations for military programs, including TriCare (which is a “must pay” program that is in any case vital to many of our members). This means that finding an “offset” for any additional funding for a veterans program beyond what is budgeted will have to take away from the needs of one of these other entities. It can certainly be argued that this new alignment will make it more difficult to add to the request for the VA by any administration and that it also is a “divide and conquer” move by pitting veterans against active-duty military, retirees, and their families. Whatever anyone thinks, however, this reorganization is now a fact that VVA and others must learn to deal with.

Undersecretary of Defense David Chu

It would appear that the reorganization of the Appropriations Committees in the Congress is just one part of a coordinated attempt to delegitimize veterans with a view toward marginalizing veterans’ needs and issues. If this succeeds, then it becomes easy to continually cut the appropriations for veterans’ health care and other vitally needed services. This intent of this attempt—this campaign— became apparent when Undersecretary of Defense David Chu told The Wall Street Journal the funding for programs benefiting veterans and military retirees (including survivors of those killed in combat and the children of MIAs/KIAs) “have gotten to the point where they are hurtful. They are taking away from the nation’s ability to defend itself.”

Chu’s comment outraged many, including VVA National President Thomas H. Corey. “This was a shameful thing to say. It is significant that in the month since Undersecretary Chu made this statement, which appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal that neither he, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, nor any other Administration official or The White House have taken any steps to disavow this statement.

Joe Galloway, a senior columnist for Knight-Ridder newspapers, perhaps put it best when he wrote: “We need to be living up to our promises to the people who wore the nation’s uniforms for 20 or 30 years, whose families bore the strain of frequent transfers and moves and long, long absences of their breadwinner serving in one or another combat zone. They were promised lifelong health care and a decent pension for faithful service.

“That Congress has, over the last four years, begun keeping some of those promises in not something members of Congress should be ashamed of. Nor is it something the veterans should be ashamed of.

“Better we ‘waste’ $28 billion on keeping our promises to veterans, retirees, military widows and orphans than blow it on misguided weapons and hardware systems.  “Better we do the honorable thing for the first time in living memory and begin spending enough money to ensure that there will be beds available in our Veterans Administration hospitals for the new disabled veterans from today’s wars, while continuing to provide health care for the aging veterans of our past wars.”

New Brochure

Working in concert with the other members of The Partnership for Veterans Health Care Budget Reform, VVA is updating and producing another informational brochure that explains the issue not only to veterans and their families, but to all Americans. Adequate funding for VA health care and other benefits today fulfills the pledge “To care for he who hath borne the battle, his widow, and his orphan.” VVA will distribute this brochure through our State Councils. Then it’s your turn to act. Please remember that one visit to your local congressional office is at minimum worth four or five visits by VVA Government Relations staff to a congressional office in Washington. We need to direct our attention to Members and Senators on both sides of the aisle, but particularly to key Republican districts where we can expect to find some allies. Over the next several weeks, we will be contacting the State Council Presidents as well as Chapter Presidents as we formulate the tactics to get our message to the ears, and the hearts, of key Republicans in Congress.

We want to make it clear, however, to VVA members and to the public, that the fight for veterans’ benefits—particularly veterans access to health care—is not a Democratic issue. Nor is it a Republican issue. It is an American issue. 

VVA PSA

Inspired to no small degree by Mr. Chu’s blatant statement, VVA has produced a 60-second public service announcement that we will distribute to all State Councils as well as to key national radio outlets. In the PSA, entitled “Our Solemn Duty,” the narrator intones that “Our nation has a solemn duty to care for its sons and daughters who have served in the Armed Forces, including those who are being wounded, injured, or disabled every day in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

The PSA continues, “As a new Congress with new leadership negotiates major changes redefining our responsibility to care for veterans, a slick public relations campaign is under way to label the benefits our veterans have earned as welfare.  “This campaign is calculated to win public support for massive and continual budget cuts designed to cut the VA to the bone.

“Vietnam Veterans of America is closely watching the situation to prevent Congress from enacting unchallenged legislation that breaks our promise to care for all of our veterans.”

The PSA, which can be downloaded from the VVA website, concludes: “Call your senators and representatives. Tell them you want a strong, fully funded Department of Veterans Affairs.”

Now, it’s up to all of us to make full funding of veterans’ health care our mantra.

   

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