Over the past three weeks, American Legion National Commander Fang Wong has become very familiar with the corridors of congressional power in Washington. Since Sept. 20, he has met with dozens of members of Congress on Capitol Hill, advocating for America's veterans, servicemembers and military families.
Wong's nearly 40 appointments included meetings with Senate majority and minority leaders Harry Reid of Nevada and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, and chairs of the Senate and House committees on veterans affairs, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida.
"In general, what I find is most members of the Veterans' Affairs committees are absolutely supportive of our cause - what is important to us" Wong said. "I get the feeling they don't want to see us get hurt at VA or DoD by the upcoming budget cuts. They agree that veterans have already served and paid their dues.
Wong told members of Congress that veterans are willing to be part of the team when budget-reduction sacrifices need to be made, "but we don't want them looking toward VA and DoD to come up with all the cuts. We want them to look at the budgets that affect 99 percent of the people in this country who are not serving in uniform, before they start cutting the part that affects our servicemembers and veterans."
Tim Tetz, the Legion's Legislative director, said Wong has done an excellent job in conveying the Legion's message. "He's seen the opportunity to press for support with specific members of Congress, and he knows when and when not to bring up certain issues," Tetz said. "He know who he is sitting down with and he understands their chief concerns. But he is also quick to recognize an opening to work with them to accomplish The American Legion's goals."
Among Wong's appointments were several members of the "Supercommittee" tasked with cutting the federal budget, including committee co-chair Murray.
"Senator Murray is really supportive and wants to take care of our veterans," Wong said. "But I didn't get that feeling from the other two Supercommittee members we met with. They basically said that everything has to be looked at, and they don't know how it's going to go. So we asked them for the opportunity to come back and plead our case one more time. They told me there may not be enough time for that because they didn't know how quickly things were going to happen (with the budget cuts). And we understand that."
Some legislators, Wong said, asked The American Legion to be prepared to "come to the table and tell them what our bottom line is. What are we willing to give up? If we can tell them that, then they can defend our position better. Sen. (John) McCain was very strong on this point. He said to me, ‘Sir, I can't help you unless I know your bottom line.' But my take is, ‘How can we draw a line in the sand when we don't know what the sand box looks like yet?"
Tetz said that, at some meetings, Wong would go through "drop sheets" that list the Legion's priorities for legislative action, and discuss the agenda outlined in his Sept. 21 congressional testimony. "Other times, he was more free-wheeling and took the conversation to another level," Tetz said. "Obviously, someone like Speaker Boehner, Leader Pelosi and other leadership, they don't have time to review the drop sheets. They need to get pressed on one issue, one vote, one ask. Commander Wong has done that exceptionally well."