VETERAN-RELATED LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS
Both the House of Representatives and Senate were in session this week. With less than nine months remaining in this Second Session of the 112th Congress, the timetable for action on many issues should be accelerated. The Obama Administration has already announced that – despite the guidelines set down in federal law – the President will release his fiscal year 2013 budget on February 13, one week later than normal. This will be the third time in four years that the proposed federal budget will be late.
On Tuesday, January 24 the President made the yearly State of the Union address, which provided a great deal of rhetoric for both sides of the aisle. With congressional and Presidential elections coming in November, many experts consider the SOTU address to be the opening salvo in President Obama’s re-election campaign.
On January 22, Representative Gabrielle Giffords (AZ) announced she was resigning her House seat this week, in order to concentrate on her recovery from a shooting last year. She pledged she would return to politics in the future. Rep. Giffords submitted her resignation on Wednesday, January 25.
House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee Examines Keystone XL Pipeline
On January 25, the legislative team attended the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power hearing on H.R. 3548, the ‘North American Energy Access Act.’ This hearing focused on President Obama’s recent decision that the Keystone XL pipeline is not in the national interest, thus denying its construction permit. This bill attempts to relocate decision-making authority on the Keystone XL pipeline to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Kerri-Ann Jones, Assistant Secretary of State, and Jeffery C. Wright, Director of the Office of Energy Projects, FERC were the witnesses for the Administration.
The Keystone XL pipeline is the proposed 1,661 mile expansion of the existing Keystone pipeline system running from Canada to the Midwestern United States. While the current pipeline has terminus points in Patoka, IL, and Cushing, OK, the proposed extension would lay new pipe from Hardisty, Canada, to Steele City, KS, and from Cushing to Port Arthur and Houston, TX. The oil transported by the pipeline will originate from Alberta’s oil sands deposits and the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Montana. Some estimates project the construction of the pipeline will create up to 20,000 direct and 100,000 indirect jobs. Since the Keystone XL pipeline crosses an international border, TransCanada is required to obtain a Presidential Permit to build the pipeline. The State Department is the lead agency and was charged with determining whether or not the pipeline is in the national interest.
TransCanada submitted its Application to the State Department in September 2008. Due to this delayed approval process Congress passed the “Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act of 2011” and included a provision directing the President to approve the Keystone XL pipeline within 60 days unless the President determined that it was not in the national interest. On January 18, 2012, the State Department issued a recommendation to the President that the Keystone XL pipeline did not serve the national interest. President Obama agreed with the findings and rejected the Keystone XL’s application.
Representative Lee Terry (NE) introduced H.R. 3548 to remove authority from the State Department to review and issue Keystone XL’s permit, The bill directs the FERC to review and approve Keystone XL’s application while allowing for a route modification to be performed by the State of Nebraska. FERC would then have 30 days to review and decide on a permit for the pipeline. FERC would also have 30 days to act on a reroute of the project through Nebraska once it is approved by the governor. If FERC did not take action within those time periods, the permit would automatically be deemed approved.
In testimony Assistant Secretary Jones said the proposed legislation imposes narrow time constraints and creates automatic mandates that prevent an informed decision and appears to override foreign policy and national security considerations implicated by a cross-border permit, which are properly assessed by the State Department. Jeffrey Wright echoed for FERC those concerns, and more, plus noted the legislation is “unclear” and essentially forces an approval of the project.
The date for a subcommittee markup of the bill is still not set.
Legislative Asst. Director Guest of Representative at the State of the Union
On January 24, Representative Jerry McNerney (CA) welcomed Legislative Assistant Director Shaun Rieley, an Iraq War veteran, as his guest at the State of the Union address.
Rep. McNerney said, “I was pleased that Sergeant Rieley accepted my invitation. It is a small thing that I can do for one of the brave men and women who have sacrificed to protect our country. Sergeant Rieley is a remarkable young man,” Rep. McNerney continued. “Like my son Michael, he felt compelled to enlist in the wake of the attacks on 9/11. His spirit and courage exhibit the strength of character of our service men and women.”
After graduating from high school in the southern Delaware town of Millsboro in 1999, Rieley enrolled in the University of Delaware and studied political science. After the outbreak of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he decided to join the Maryland Army National Guard as an infantryman. Rieley attended basic training in 2004 at Ft. Benning, GA, and returned to Delaware to finish his degree.
After graduating in May of 2005, he received word that he would be deploying early the next year for a year-long tour of duty. After this tour, Rieley returned home, only to get word of his deployment to Iraq as a part of the surge. After a 3 month train-up at Ft. Dix, NJ he deployed to Baghdad, Iraq. He served in Iraq from September of 2007 through March of 2008.
Upon his return, Rieley decided to pursue a Master of Arts in Teaching, which he completed in December of 2010. He applied to a second graduate program at St. John’s College in Annapolis, where he is currently working towards his Master of Arts in Liberal Arts, with an emphasis on Philosophy and Classics.
State of the Union Debrief
Within Congress, the highlight of this week was President Obama’s State of the Union Address. No matter the president or the agenda extended in the State of the Union, the speech is often not only seen as a vision for the coming year, but often a partisan viewpoint on the direction of Congress. The goal we have within the Legislative Division, and as the nonpartisan nature of The American Legion, is to extend this message and its implications into our upcoming policy and lobbying efforts within Congress.
To accomplish this, one event The American Legion attended was a State of the Union Debrief at the Press Club. There, the legislative team heard interviews from several members of congress, the media, and polling/strategy experts on where Congress will be going with the ideas outlined in the President’s address.
It is generally accepted that both parties and chambers are eager to get the extension of the Medicare reimbursement rates and tax reductions for a longer period. Most leaders have agreed upon this, the “pay for” is still eluding the negotiators of this compromise. Beyond this action, and work on appropriation for FY13, there was little consensus on what else might be accomplished this coming year.
Outside of this, there was general discussion in the closing minutes of the debrief that highlighted the concerns with the student loan and higher education costs. Student loan interest rates are set to rise considerably at the close of this year, and if not addressed, they may make it unachievable for many students to continue to take out such significant loans. That argument was coupled with the overwhelming voices of many (including those in the veterans community) that higher education institutions must do a better job to increase graduation rates, provide for employment success, and adequately serve their student population while keeping costs down. We can be sure there will be many opportunities to address this conundrum, especially as it relates to the Post-9/11 GI Bill in the coming months.
House VA Subcommittee Examines VA Disability Rating System
On Tuesday, January 24 the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability and Memorial Affairs held their first hearing of the new year, focused on the state of the VA disability rating system. The hearing also touched on some issues related to translation of the VA system back and forth with the system utilized by active duty for transitioning service members who are undergoing medical and physical evaluation boards.
Veterans and members of Congress alike expressed concerns with VA’s system, which has not undergone a complete revision since World War II. While portions of the rating system have been revised in the intervening years, one of the chief criticisms is that portions of the system are still based on inadequate and outdated medical knowledge. For example, relatively common medical disorders such as Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) have no direct correspondence on the rating schedule, and must be rated by analogous symptoms, which can lead to a less accurate measure of disability. Furthermore, the psychiatric rating schedule has long been criticized as incapable of rating the impact of mental health conditions.
VA is in the process of revising the rating schedule, yet concerns still exist regarding the efficacy of the revisions. Although VA is including veterans’ groups in conferences to discuss the rewrites (such as an ongoing conference this week in New York City with full VSO participation), veterans’ groups remain concerned VA is not listening to their input. The preliminary revisions to the mental health ratings, for example, would rate solely on work impact and neglect any consideration of the often devastating social effects of the disorders. For example, a veteran suffering from severe posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) incapable of working with others and forced to take a job such as a night watchman where he would interact little with others would not receive substantial compensation because he would still be maintaining full time employment. It is analogous to saying amputees do not deserve full compensation for their lost limbs if they can find a desk job that doesn’t require them to use their legs.
These concerns, and concerns that the rating schedule does not adequately reflect the impact on veterans’ quality of life while suffering from these disorders, were the primary themes of the hearing. Subcommittee Chairman John Runyan (NJ) acknowledged the difficult issues they were wrangling with, stating “We all want to find some way to account for quality of life, but it’s very difficult to find a way to quantify it.” None of the participants, be they veterans, government employees or outside experts, could come up with a reasonable way to quantify the loss of quality of life, so questions will obviously remain.
Legion Staff Attend White House Meeting After SOTU Address.
On January 25, American Legion legislative staff attended a Post-State of the Union meeting at the White House. Vice President Joseph Biden was the featured speaker along with other senior White House officials, who discussed the themes and policies the President laid out in his third annual State of the Union address. The themes are expected to reappear during the coming 2012 election campaign.
Below are the talking points distributed at the event:
• In his State of the Union Address, the president laid out a blueprint for an economy that's built to last – an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers and a renewal of American values.
• The president believes this is a make-or-break moment for the middle class and those trying to reach it. What's at stake is the very survival of the basic American promise that if you work hard, you can do well enough to raise a family, own a home and put a little away for retirement.
• The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive. No challenge is more urgent; no debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while more Americans barely get by. Or we can build a nation where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.
• The fact is, the economic security of the middle class has eroded for decades. Long before the recession, good jobs and manufacturing began leaving our shores. Hard work stopped paying off for too many Americans. Those at the top saw their incomes rise like never before, but the vast majority of Americans struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren't.
• In 2008, the house of cards collapsed. Mortgages were sold to people who couldn't afford or understand them. Banks made huge bets and bonuses made with other people's money. It was a crisis that cost us more than eight million jobs and plunged our economy and the world into a crisis from which we are still fighting to recover.
• The president has been clear that we need to do more to create jobs and help economic growth. But under his leadership and thanks to action taken by this president, the economy is growing again. The economy has added a total of 3.2 million private sector jobs over the last 22 months.
• American manufacturing is creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s. The American auto industry is coming back. Today, American oil production is the highest that it's been in eight years. Together, we've agreed to cut the deficit by more than $2 trillion. And the president signed into law new rules to hold Wall Street accountable. He stands on a solid record and tonight will lay out a blueprint that will ensure an economy built to last over the long term.
• For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. We've decimated al Qaeda's leadership, delivered justice to Osama bin Laden, and put that terrorist network on the path to defeat. We've made important progress in Afghanistan, and begun a transition so Afghans can assume more responsibility. We joined with allies and partners to protect the Libyan people as they ended the regime of Muammar Qadhafi.
• We cannot go back to an economy based on outsourcing, bad debt, and phony financial profits. The president intends to keep moving forward and rebuild an economy where hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded – an economy built to last.
Senate Panel Reviews Progress at Arlington Cemetery
On January 25 the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing to examine progress in contract management and overall progress at Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington, rocked over the past several years with a variety of scandals over mismanagement, has been under an improvement process for the past nineteen months with new management including Executive Director Kathryn Condon. Director Condon went before the committee along with: LTG Peter Vangjel, Inspector General of the US Army; Brian Lepore, GAO Director of Defense Capabilities and Management; and Belva Martin, GAO Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management.
Director Martin of the Government Accountability Office specifically stated that “Arlington has made significant progress…” over the last year and a half towards respectability. Director Condon noted they are now “fully in compliance with all Federal regulations.”
Senator Claire McCaskill (MO) was the driving force behind the hearing from the committee side, and lauded the improvements at Arlington, referencing site visits she had personally conducted. Chairman McCaskill had personally sponsored provisions in P.L. 111-339 (signed into law December 22, 2010) which called for regular reports on progress at the cemetery, and this hearing also reviewed the findings of those legally mandated reports. The findings of those reports, as noted by McCaskill, represent a “sea change” in leadership, with changes that are substantial and significant.
Still, there remain many unanswered questions about the period of mismanagement leading up to the crisis that Director Condon was brought in to resolve. During the period from 2004 to 2010 perhaps $12 million is still unaccounted for. Senator McCaskill rightly recognized this as appalling, but noted, “I don’t think there is any indication of people walking off with [the money]. I think this is incompetence…gross incompetence.”
However, although the $12 million in funds is still unaccounted for, it is actually part of a larger chunk of $27 million previously thought missing. The recovered $15 million has been located by auditors and directed towards much needed improvements in the cemetery’s computer and IT infrastructure as well as providing for new burial equipment and upgrades to the Columbarium where the ashes of cremated service members can be interred. The current annual operating budget of $45 million is “now transparent and can be accounted for down to the last dollar” stated Director Condon.