VETERAN-RELATED LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS
Both the House of Representatives and Senate were in session for the second straight week this past week. This might be surprising to those who usually work 50 weeks each year, but in 2012, where both houses will most likely meet less than 100 total days, it is unusual. The House begins their monthly recess today and will not return until the 19th. The Senate will remain in session until April. The biggest issues in front of Congress now is the development of a budget within the House – the Senate has said they won’t create one – and passage of several authorization bills.
Because of the limited work schedule, while the members are in Washington, there a tremendous number of hearings. The American Legion participated in over a dozen this week. A few are summarized below.
Impact of Sequestration on National Defense Examined
The failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction has triggered a process known as “sequestration”, in which funds are indiscriminately cut from government budgets. One of the primary budgets in danger of being slashed is that of the Department of Defense. While few would question the need to reign in the national deficit and debt to ensure the continued economic stability of our country going into the future, the manner in which these cuts are scheduled to be indiscriminately implemented under sequestration is disconcerting.
Cuts of this sort are likely to have devastating unintended consequences, not only in terms of national security, but economically as well. States which have a strong military presence often rely heavily on the economic activity associated with the military personnel stationed there. Towns and cities which surround military posts thrive directly from the monetary flow brought about through transactions with military personnel, creating countless jobs across the country.
In addition to the jobs directly placed in peril by the reduction of military forces nationwide, these potential cuts also threaten the thousands of jobs connected to military contractors. These jobs are spread throughout the country, and are not necessarily associated with those areas immediately surrounding military institutions. Therefore, indiscriminate cuts to defense funding, rather than threatening military communities alone, endangers the economic stability of an even more widespread portion of the country.
The Center for Security Policy has put together two reports on the economic impacts of drastic cuts to defense funding. The first provides insights into the overall national picture associated with these cuts. The second includes a brake down of the economic impacts of these cuts by state and county. These tools show the potentially devastating effects sequestration, if it is allowed to take effect, could have on our already fragile economic situation.
The first report details, state by state and county by county, the impacts that the cuts under sequestration are likely to have across the nation. The report demonstrates that the impact is much more widespread than might be initially assumed, and demonstrates the importance of The American Legion’s Resolution 1 “National Defense Funding”, and the need to work to oppose the implementation of sequestration.
The full impact of sequestration remains to be seen, however, it is important that the data be made available to those who will be most impacted. This will enable to them fully prepare for the potentiality, should efforts to avoid these cuts fail. Furthermore, this may encourage grassroots organization to counteract these impending cuts.
The first report showing national impact is available here:
The second report showing the state and country breakdown is available here:
Legion Staff Attends Summit on Veteran Unemployment
The Center for American Progress held a summit on Wednesday March 7th aimed at addressing the issue of veteran joblessness, and unemployment facing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans specifically. Panelists included Robert Greenstein, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Lawrence Korb, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress; Koby J. Langley, Senior Advisor to the CEO, Corporation for National and Community Service; and Tom Tarantino, Deputy Policy Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The panel was moderated by Neera Tanden, Counselor to the Center for American Progress Action Fund and President of the Center for American Progress.
The issues addressed largely centered around strategies for getting veterans back to work, and anticipating the unemployment issues projected to be exacerbated by both the ending of the war in Iraq/closing of the war in Afghanistan, and the impending reduction in size of the military as a result of sequestration. Specific topics addressed included licensing and credentialing, transition assistance, and education of the workforce management to facilitate an understanding of what military service has to offer in terms of job skills.
An inability of states and the federal government to offer licenses and credentials for skills gained through military training – such as medical or truck driving skills – has proven to be a barrier to employment for many separating or returning military members. Legislation passed last year known as the “VOW to Hire Heroes Act” has begun to address this issue, and further legislation is currently pending.
The Transition Assistance Program (TAP) has become mandatory with the passing of the “VOW to Hire Heroes Act,” which will provide separating and returning service members training on job-acquisition skills, such as resume writing and interview techniques. Education of management to understand the benefits of hiring military personnel is ongoing through various outreach and education programs through Department of Labor, VA and Veterans Service Organizations, and other concerned entities.
Army Leaders testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee
Secretary of the Army John McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno testified March 8 on the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization budget request from the Department of the Army.
The Army requested $184.6 billion in this year's budget -- about $18 billion less than what the Army received in fiscal 2012. Of that, about $134.6 billion is part of the "base" request, for the generating force. An additional $50 billion is to support overseas contingency operations (OCO), such as the war in Afghanistan. The end of the Army’s mission in Iraq accounts for a majority of the decline in the budget request.
Over the next five years, the Army plans to decrease its end-strength from a post-9/11 peak of 570,000 to 490,000 Active Army, 358,000 to 353,500 Army National Guard and 206,000 to 205,000 Army Reserve Soldiers. To avoid a "hollow force," Odierno said the "Army would need the length of the ramp to be five years to enable us to keep our best, combat-tested NCOs and officers."
Senators voiced concerns over a wide range of cuts, from end strength, veterans’ health care to weapons and systems programs. "The budget supports modernization, training, Soldiers and families and enables the Army to remain the most lethal force in the world," Secretary McHugh told them. He added that "This budget reflects hard decisions and a new defense strategy which emphasizes a smaller, more agile land force."
Odierno added that the budget would support two major theater operations, if required, but "there would be risks if those operations were extended." He said the Army, which has been planning this budget for months, built in "reversibility" so that personnel and equipment could be ramped up if the security situation required it.
McHugh, Odierno and nearly all senators voiced concerns over the looming threat of sequestration, which McHugh said "would have devastating effects on the Army, its Soldiers and families, who would have to bear that cross. It is beyond risky. Unacceptable is an understatement." Sequestration refers to the 2011 Budget Control Act, triggering hundreds of billions of dollars in additional cuts to the military beginning next January -- unless government action is taken to avert it.
"The impact to the Army could cause up to 100,000 in cuts to end-strength on top of the 86,000 we have already planned to reduce," Odierno said. Many lawmakers are already worried about the Army's plan to trim its active force down to 490,000 over the next five years, expressing fears over the risks it may pose to national defense.
Odierno said he is confident that the Army's planned end-strength reductions over the next five or six years would allow the force to meet all of its commitments. But -- "If we are forced to do it much quicker than that, then the risk goes up exponentially," he said. "The risk that we are accepting is that we will not get into long-term, simultaneous operations again as in Iraq and Afghanistan over a 10-year period. We do have the capability to conduct two operations simultaneously. Again, the risk comes in if they are extended over a long period of time."
House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee holds hearing on job & education bills
The House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity held a hearing on March 7th, in order to provide an opportunity for the presentation of testimony by a variety of individuals and organizations on legislation pending in the House Veterans Affairs Committee, including testimony submitted by The American Legion. At issue were ten bills with a variety of aims and proposals for increasing veteran job placement and rehabilitation, improving transition assistance, bettering education opportunities and transparency, increasing USERRA protections and improving the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill. On the table were two bills which are likely to be controversial.
First, H.R. 3610, the Streamlining Workforce Development Programs Act of 2011, a proposal to restructure and “streamline” Department of Labor workforce development programs, including the Veteran Employment and Training Service (VETS), by pushing funding and control to the states. The American Legion, along with the other Veteran Service Organizations represented at the hearing, opposes this proposal, on the grounds that it leaves the restructured Veterans Workforce Investment Fund underfunded and ill-equipped to fully support the needs of veterans, particularly in a time when veterans are returning from two foreign wars, and the military is downsizing, leaving many veterans looking for gainful employment.
Second, H.R. 4072, the Consolidating Veterans Employment Services for Improved Performance Act of 2012, a proposal to move VETS from the Department of Labor to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The American Legion supports this proposal as a way in which these programs can be effectively maintained in their current form and protected from proposals such as the one advanced in H.R. 3610.
In addition to opposing H.R. 3610, The American Legion did not take a position on H.R. 4052, the Recognizing Excellence in Veterans Education Act of 2012, which would allow for awards for institutions of higher learning who are deemed “excellent” in providing veterans with educational opportunities. Though The American Legion supports the idea behind the bill, no position has been taken on this legislation, due to the criteria by which schools would be deemed “excellent” being vague, as well as the lack of a resolution allowing for decisive action on a bill such as this.
LEGISLATIVE DIVISION ACTIONS
Legion Supports Legislation to Protect VA Programs from Sequestration
In the aftermath of the failure of the “super-committee” to reach final agreement, Congress is now faced with the likelihood of making large-scale cuts to many federal government programs. The Department of Defense is facing spending reductions totaling nearly $950 billion of the total $2.4 trillion in proposed cuts over the next decade, according to the Budget Control Act of 2011 (Public Law 112-25).
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is in a rather nebulous situation. Under the provisions of P.L. 112-25, all VA programs would be exempt from sequestration. However, the 1985 legislation, the “Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985” (P.L. 99-177), approaches veterans programs thusly:
· No sequestration of veterans’ compensation and pensions; and,
· Limited reductions of VA medical care programs, no greater than 2 percent.
The American Legion has attempted in vain to receive clarification on the effect of sequestration on VA programs. To date, neither VA nor the Office of Management and the Budget have answered our inquiries. As a result, legislation has been introduced in both congressional chambers to legislatively answer this question. In the Senate, S. 2128, entitled the “Protecting the Health Care of Veterans Act of 2012” was introduced by Sen. Jon Tester (MT). This measure would exempt all VA accounts from possible budget cuts. A House companion bill, H.R. 3895, entitled the “Protect VA Healthcare Act of 2012” was introduced by House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (FL).
Update on Flag Amendment Bills
Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (UT) office continues to solicit additional cosponsors for Senate Joint Resolution (S.J. Res.) 19, a proposed constitutional amendment to protect the American flag from physical desecration. Its text states simply: “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.” The cosponsor total for the Senate legislation stands at 33, with the addition last week of Sens. Jerry Moran (KS) and James Risch (ID).
To date, H.J. Res. 13 – the House companion to the Senate measure – has accumulated 79 cosponsors. The new cosponsors – all added last week during Washington Conference – include:
Rep. Rick Berg (ND) Rep. Mike Michaud (ME)
Rep. Rob Bishop (UT) Rep. Thomas Rooney (FL)
Rep. Charles Boustany (LA) Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL)
Rep. Scott DesJarlais (NJ) Rep. Steven Rothman (NJ)
Rep. Walter Jones (NC) Rep. John Shimkus (IL)
Rep. Tom Marino (PA) Rep. Allen West (FL)
Rep. John Mica (FL)
Please contact your representatives’ and senators’ offices, and ask them to become cosponsors of the flag amendment in their respective chambers. If they are already cosponsors, be sure to thank them for their support.
Letters of Support
On February 22, The American Legion sent a letter to Rep. Rodney Alexander (LA), expressing support for H.R. 1130, the “Education Assistance to Realign New Eligibilities for Dependents (EARNED) Act of 2011.” This measure allows Post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits earned by all post-9/11 veterans to be transferrable to their dependents. We also asked Rep. Alexander to amend the bill to allow the same benefits for retired National Guard and Reserve veterans who would otherwise qualify if they had retired from active duty.
On March 5, our organization sent a letter to Rep. Jeff Miller (FL) – who is also chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee – stating our support for provisions in H.R. 2383, the “Modernization Notice to Claimants Act.” This measure would address improved communication and duty to assist veterans in obtaining private records. In addition, the letter asked Chairman Miller to hold a hearing on the claims process from the viewpoint of the service officer.
Also on March 5, The American Legion sent letters to Reps. C.W. “Bill” Young (FL) and Norman Dicks (WA) expressing the support of The American Legion for the Defense Vision Research Program and other programs that seek to provide treatment and support for the many service members stricken with injuries and disorders affecting their vision. The Legion further “supports an increase in funding for the research and treatment of these eye injuries…We need to ensure these wounds receive care and study equivalent to the large numbers so afflicted.”
On March 7, our organization sent a letter to Rep. Jeff Denham (CA), stating our support for draft legislation entitled the “Veteran Skills to Jobs Act.” This measure would provide for federal certification of veterans who have been qualified for licensure through relevant military training. This will assist in the process of ensuing that veterans are able to smoothly and quickly transition between military and civilian employment.
There are several bills in Congress right now that address the repeal of concurrent receipt. Which of these bills does The American Legion support?
Currently, there are three measures that our organization has in its sights. Here is a brief explanation of each bill.
H.R. 303, entitled the “Retired Pay Restoration Act,” was introduced by Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL). This is legislation that has been introduced in each Congress for many years. Rep. Bilirakis’ father Mike – who served in Congress from 1983-2007 – introduced legislation similar to this one throughout his congressional tenure. This bill would allow the receipt of both military retired pay and veterans' disability compensation with respect to any service-connected disability. [Under current law, only a disability rated at 50 percent or more can receive both forms of payment.] It would also repeal provisions phasing in the full concurrent receipt of such pay through December 31, 2013. It would further make eligible for the full concurrent receipt of both veterans' disability compensation and either military retired pay or combat-related special pay those individuals who were retired or separated from military service due to a service-connected disability. It currently has 85 cosponsors.
H.R. 333, entitled the “Disabled Veterans Tax Termination Act,” was introduced by Rep. Sanford Bishop (GA). This measure amends federal military retired pay provisions to:
• Permit veterans with a service-connected disability of less than 50 percent to concurrently receive both retired pay and disability compensation;
• Eliminate provisions requiring a phase in between January 1, 2004, and December 31, 2013, of concurrent receipt of retired pay and disability compensation;
• Eliminate the four-year phase-in of concurrent receipt of retired pay and disability compensation for disabled veterans determined to be individually unemployable; and
• Require a limited reduction in retired pay for combat-related disability retirees with less than 20 years of retirement-creditable service.
H.R. 333 currently has 153 cosponsors.
Finally, Sen. Harry Reid (NV) introduced S. 344, the Senate version of the “Retired Pay Restoration Act.” This bill allows the receipt of both military retired pay and veterans' disability compensation with respect to any service-connected disability (rather than only a disability rated at 50 percent or more under current law). It also makes eligible for the full concurrent receipt of both veterans' disability compensation and either military retired pay or combat-related special pay those individuals who were retired or separated from military service due to a service-connected disability. It does not address the repeal of the phase-in, as does H.R. 303. S. 344 currently has 28 cosponsors.
While any of these bills would achieve our objectives, based on a comparison of these three measures, The American Legion supports H.R. 303.