On the eve of a House hearing about how the Department of Veterans Affairs is being affected by the government shutdown, American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger is calling upon Congress and President Obama to settle their differences immediately, for the sake of America and more than 20 million veterans.
"The time for bickering and political brinksmanship is over," Dellinger said. "It is now time for our government in Washington to stand with – and not against – our men and women who have served this country with honor and sacrifice. Do Congress and the White House truly understand what it means to eliminate a veteran’s sole source of income? Benefit payments to our veterans will soon end if the government shutdown goes on. Who is going to take responsibility for the despair that will surely follow?"
Dellinger, who voiced his concerns Oct. 4 at a press conference in Washington, said The American Legion’s anger over what the federal government shutdown is doing to America’s veterans is strictly nonpartisan. "Democrat, Republican, Independent alike, all are failing America’s veterans by refusing to cooperate," he said. "We have a genuine crisis in leadership in our nation’s capital. With the government closed and a debt ceiling about to be breached, our veterans aren’t the only ones who will pay the price of political arrogance – the entire country will."
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki will be the sole witness at an Oct. 9 hearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. In a statement issued by the committee, the hearing’s purpose "is to clarify precisely how veterans, VA programs and employees will be affected by the shutdown in both the near and longer term."
On Sept. 25, VA announced that 95 percent of its employees would either be fully funded, or required to perform excepted functions, during a government shutdown. Two days later, the department indicated that benefits claims processing and payments would not be affected by shutdown. However, VA reversed its stance in a Sept. 28 memo, saying that funding for claims processors and beneficiaries would run out by the end of October.
The serious impact of the shutdown on veterans reached a more critical stage Oct. 7, when VA announced it had to furlough nearly 10,000 workers because of funding shortfalls. Loss of this work force means the department can no longer process GI Bill benefits claims, conduct personal interviews and hearings, offer educational or vocational counseling, or provide outreach activities and programs.
The reduced work force also means that American Legion service officers are unable to use office space allocated to them at the regional offices. The Legion has more than 2,600 accredited representatives across the country who help veterans file claims for pension, disability and other VA benefits.
"Let’s get away from all the politics and talk about the real desperation that so many of our veterans are facing," Dellinger said. "Imagine how will it feel to be a veteran living month to month on a VA benefits check that may not be paid in November? Imagine how veterans are going to feel – who are sick or disabled because they served this country – if they are no longer able to provide the basic needs of their families?
"We’re talking about food, shelter and electricity. We’re talking about survival for people without any safety nets. How does Congress and the White House feel about putting thousands of veterans at risk of eviction, homelessness or worse? And why are they creating such despair for our veterans?"
According to the Legion, the Veterans Benefits Administration issued more than $758 million in benefits payments in September alone.
Dellinger said The American Legion, through its Legislative Division in Washington, is pressing Congress each day to find a solution to the shutdown. "And find it quickly," he said. "It’s called compromise. Get off the talk show circuit and pick up the phone."