LEGION-RELATED LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS
Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate were in session this week. The biggest issues in front of Congress now is the development of a budget resolution within the House – the Senate has said they won’t create one – and passage of several authorization bills.
House Republicans Unveil FY 2013 Budget Plan
On Tuesday, March 20 the House Republicans released their budget proposal for fiscal year (FY) 2013. It was followed by a short speech and press conference at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, given by Representative Paul Ryan (WI), chairman of the House Budget Committee. Rep. Ryan emphasized that the budget aims to return control of economic decisions to the people, and reduce control in Washington. He stated that the debit crisis was ultimately a predictable situation, and one which could still be prevented with an exercise of political courage. “Medicare is arguably the most important program we have in the federal government” said Rep. Ryan.
Rep. Ryan went on to state that the budget proposal shows how Medicare can be saved “…without bankrupting [our] children; without denying people care.” The President’s budget, released last month, would reduce economic growth while increasing dependency on the government, which is opposed to the founding ideals of America, said Rep. Ryan. This budget, he said, would put the United States back on the path to prosperity.
Later that day, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (MD) responded to the Republican budget in a speech and question-and-answer session at the American Center for Progress. He stated that the plan is “very disappointing” and he called for “shared sacrifice,” rather than a plan which “…rigs the rules of the game in favor of the very wealthy and powerful special interests at the expense of middle-income Americans, at the expense of seniors and at the expense of critical investments necessary to help our economy grow stronger.” He stated that he agrees that there is a need for the implementation of sensible reforms for Medicare, but that the Republican plan ignores the burden it will place on those who rely on Medicare, and they do not recognize the extent to which the Affordable Care Act addresses some of these issues. When asked his opinion as to how veterans’ job initiative proposals fare in the Republican’s proposed budget, Rep. Van Hollen, responded, “…it is hard to determine exactly…what the impact will be.”
House Hearing Examines Traumatic Brain Injury Prevention and Treatment
On March 19 the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health looked at federal, state and private efforts to prevent and treat traumatic brain injury (TBI) and the disabilities they cause. The focus was on TBI in general and not military-related TBI and principally examined efforts coordinated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), not DOD or VA.
Witnesses included: Bonnie Strickland, Director of Services for Children with Special Health Care Needs at the Health Resources and Services Administration; William Ditto, Director of the New Jersey TBI Division at the New Jersey Department of Health; Flaura Winston, Scientific Director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, PA; and Mark J. Ashley, President of the Centre for Neuro Skills.
A Background Memo on the hearing prepared by committee staff is available here and is noteworthy for its overview of federal legislation to address civilian TBI. In short, the federal government has been involved in this issue directly since passing the TBI Act of 1996, which encouraged research and programs to identify and increase awareness of TBI. Several amendments to the Act have passed since then, aimed at educating the public and ensuring best treatment practices for injured individuals. The TBI Act of 2008 authorized a study to examine research results, assess appropriate interventions, and develop practice guidelines. Results of this study will be available November 2012.
Leading off the testimony was Ms. Strickland who provided a general overview of current TBI work in HHS and elsewhere in the federal government. She said a Federal Interagency Committee was established in 2011 to create and contribute to a centralized online clearinghouse of federal resources pertaining to TBI. The Committee will have its second in-person meeting in March 2012 to preview its first collaborative product: the newly developed Federal Clearinghouse for Traumatic Brain Injury. This public website will house resources with relevance to TBI that have been developed by federal agencies.
She added that in 2011, the National Institutes of Health announced a partnership with the DOD in building a central Federal Interagency Traumatic Brain Injury Research (FITBIR) database on TBI studies. This database will allow comparison across a broad range of TBI studies and aid in the development of better TBI classification systems (which is essential for clinical trials), better diagnostic criteria for mild TBI, predictive markers for dementia and other delayed problems, and improved evidence based guidelines for care, from injury through rehabilitation.
Mr. Ditto’s testimony addressed issues affecting state governments in terms of serving individuals with TBI and their families and Ms. Winston focused on pediatric TBI.
Finally Dr. Ashley provided a clinical perspective. Several key points highlighted in his testimony were:
1. TBI is more prevalent than new diagnoses of all cancers and affects people of all ages.
2. TBI is a disease, is disease causative and is disease accelerative. It is immensely complex and requires highly specialized treatment.
3. There is significant variability in access to medically necessary health care interventions for individuals sustaining brain injuries due to factors such as state or residency, type of coverage, particular provider and advocacy skills of family members.
4. TBI treatment is clinically effective and cost efficacious.
5. Research funding is not adequate to match the significance of this public health threat.
Written testimony and video of the hearing are available here.
Senate Hearing Addresses Possible BRAC Activities
On March 21, The American Legion attended the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support hearing on military construction, environmental, and base closure programs. The purpose was to review these programs as presented by the President for the Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year (FY) 2013.
The witnesses were: Dorothy Robyn, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Installations and Environment; Katherine Hammack, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations and Environment; Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations and Environment; and Terry Yonkers, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Logistics.
The main point of contention at this hearing was the President’s request for new Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) authority in FYs 2013 and 2015. In answer to the President’s request for BRAC authority, both Chair Claire McCaskill (MO) and Ranking Member Kelly Ayotte (NH) announced they will block any efforts to create a new base closing commission. Consequently, it appears that this authority will not pass in FY 2013, at least. This does not mean base realignments and closures will not happen overseas though, as the President does not need congressional authority for those actions. In addition, this is a policy decision, thus no budget money was allocated in the budget request so this policy denial by Congress does not affect the budget debate at all. The main concerns the senators raised for not supporting this authority were the upfront costs it would take to go through this process and the need for reversibility so that bases can be built up again if necessary. The witnesses all said this authority was necessary due to upcoming force reductions and the need to be rid of excess infrastructure.
Further witness testimony indicated the following items of interest to The American Legion: 1) the reduction in construction funding for family housing occurred because the Defense Department (DOD) only builds such housing overseas now as family housing in the United States has been privatized; 2) requests for other construction funds is less in FY 2013 because DOD plans to begin realignment actions based upon troop reduction beginning in FY 2014 and thus DOD wants to defer construction for this fiscal year in order to study the ramifications of the troop reduction and how it will affect bases; and 3) there will be increases in funding for the energy reduction and water conservation programs.
House Subcommittee Examines Veterans Employment and Training Programs
On March 21, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies held a hearing devoted to veteran employment and training programs. This hearing was to help ascertain the status of veteran jobs programs being implemented through the Department of Labor, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a non-profit organization from Connecticut called The WorkPlace, which acts as the Workforce Investment Board for southwestern Connecticut, which operates three One Stop Centers.
Witnesses at the hearing included: Ishmael Ortiz, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Veterans’ Employment and Training, U.S. Department of Labor; Kevin Schmiegel, Vice President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Executive Director, Hiring Our Heroes; and, Joseph Carbone, President and CEO, The WorkPlace.
Mr. Ortiz began by providing an overview of the veteran-specific programs which are run through the Department of Labor (DOL), specifically, The Jobs for Veterans Grants (JVSG), the Transition Assistance Program Employment Workshops (TAP), The Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program (HVRP), the Veterans Workforce Investment Program (VWIP), and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), and veterans’ preference in federal employment. Each of these programs works directly with veterans to assist in the development of veterans’ job skills through training opportunities, as well as to match veterans with job opportunities in their area.
The JVSG programs utilized Disabled Veterans’ Outreach Program (DVOPs) specialists and Local Veterans’ Employment Representatives (LVERs) placed at One Stop Career Centers throughout the country to work with veterans in order to facilitate the matching of veterans with employment and training opportunities. TAP provides separating active duty military members and demobilizing National Guard and Reserve members with training designed to equip veterans with vital skills for acquiring employment. HVRP is aimed at providing employment and training specifically to homeless veterans. VWIP provides competitive grants for training, re-training and employment for recently separated veterans, veterans with service-connected disabilities, veterans with significant barriers to employment, or combat veterans. USERRA and veterans preference programs provide protection for the jobs of reservists who are called up to active duty, and allow for veterans to gain preference in the hiring practices of federal agencies.
Mr. Ortiz highlighted several new initiatives being piloted by DOL. These included:
· The National Resource Directory and Veterans Job Bank, which are web-based resources aimed at linking veterans with services which support rehabilitation, reintegration and employment;
· The Gold Card Initiative, which provides unemployed post-9/11 era veterans with services they need to succeed in today’s job market; Veterans Transportation and Community Living Initiative, which provides disabled service members and their families access to employment-related transportation; and
· The United Services Military Apprenticeship Program and Guard Apprenticeship Program, which provide active duty and Guard members an opportunity to improve their job skills and obtain certification for a variety of jobs.
Mr. Schmiegel proceeded to discuss the Hiring Our Heroes initiative being implemented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Hiring Our Heroes is an integrated program, which utilizes the public and private sectors on national, state and local levels in order to successfully reduce veteran unemployment, and to provide veterans with meaningful employment. In the first year, he said, the program has exceeded its goal of 100 job fairs in 45 states. In the second year, the goal is to increase that number to 400, and to increase the existing programs to better serve veterans.
Mr. Carbone expounded upon several programs which are being implemented in the state of Connecticut. These include: the Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program, which provides incarcerated veterans who are at risk for homelessness with options for stable housing, as well as employment services, which begin prior to release; and the Sector-Based Veterans Program, which provides green classroom and on-the-job training to recently separated veterans, offering training which provides credentials in the green and renewable energy sector.
Top Commander to Congress: US Must Stick to Its Strategy in Afghanistan
In the face of increasing political and public pressure to end the military mission, Afghan war commander Gen. John Allen on Thursday, March 22 pushed back at suggestions the U.S. withdraw more forces than already planned from Afghanistan this year. “My opinion is that we will need significant combat power in 2013," he said during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
At issue is the future size of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. The military is set to withdraw the last 23,000 of the 33,000 surge troops from Afghanistan by this fall, leaving open the question of when the remaining 68,000 troops should return home. The current U.S. plan calls for a complete withdrawal by December 2014, when Afghan forces are to take charge of the country's security. That would give the coalition two more fighting seasons to weaken the Taliban and allow U.S. and coalition forces to continue training a substantial number of Afghan security forces while diplomats hammer out a peace deal.
During the hearing, Allen said efforts to hand over security to the Afghans and wind down the decade-plus war are on track despite anger over a U.S. soldier's alleged massacre of Afghan civilians and the burning of Korans. Allen insisted that the U.S. and its coalition forces are moving ahead in ensuring that Afghanistan doesn't revert to a terrorist haven and transferring the security lead to the Afghans. The forces, he said, are meeting the commitments spelled out in the overall withdrawal plan hammered out at the conference in Lisbon in November 2010.
In the past year, Afghan security forces have expanded from 276,000 to 330,000 and will achieve their goal of full strength before an October deadline. That training is the linchpin of coalition strategy, the general said, noting that local forces are the ones who defeat insurgencies. “In the long run, our goals can only be achieved and then secured by Afghan forces,” he said. This will allow the United States to withdraw the remaining 23,000 American surge forces while pressuring the Taliban to reconcile.
Afghan leadership is key, and the Afghans want this responsibility, the general said. “They are truly emerging as the real ‘defeat mechanism’ of this insurgency, and increasingly as an emblem of national unity and this is essential for the long-term security of Afghanistan,” he said. But the enemy remains determined, Allen acknowledged. “This campaign has been long,” he said. “It has been difficult, and it has been costly. There have been setbacks, to be sure -- we’re experiencing them now -- and there will be more setbacks ahead.
“I wish I could tell you that this war was simple, and that progress could be easily measured,” he continued. “But that’s not the way of counterinsurgencies. They are fraught with success and setbacks, which can exist in the same space and time, but each must be seen in the larger context of the overall campaign. And I believe that the campaign is on track. We are making a difference. I know this, and our troops know this.”
The testimony comes as the Afghan war debate, long dormant, has begun to intensify because of U.S. weariness with the long conflict. A recent poll found that 60 percent of the country feel the war is no longer worth fighting and that Republican support, for years higher than that of the country as a whole, had fallen sharply.
LEGISLATIVE DIVISION ACTIONS
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.
To date, H.J. Res. 13 – the House companion to the Senate measure – has accumulated 82 cosponsors, with the addition of Rep. Aaron Schock (IL) this week.
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 March 21, the American Legion sent a letter to Rep. David McKinley (WV), stating our support for H.R. 4079, a bill entitled the “Safe Housing for Homeless Veterans Act.” This measure would require recipients of grants and other assistance from VA for the provision of housing and other services for homeless veterans to comply with codes relevant to operations and level of care provided.