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Legislative Division Update 06-01-2012

 

LEGION-RELATED LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS

 

Congressional Updates

 

The U.S. House of Representatives was in session this week, while the Senate is in its home work period. The House is scheduled to be in recess during the week of June 11-15.

 

 Senate Appropriations Panel Approves MilCon-VA Funding for FY 2013

 

On May 22, the full Senate Appropriations Committee approved S. 3215, the fiscal year (FY) 2013 funding measure for Military Construction programs and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and related agencies. The vote for passage was 27-3. The bill would fund these operations at $146.6 billion, an amount that is $466 million below the President’s request, yet is $228 million above the current year’s funding totals.

 

The military construction accounts would receive $10.6 billion, $569 million below the President’s budget request. Some of the specific accounts addressed include:

 

·         $7.1 billion to fund active duty military construction, including operational, training, and research facilities, barracks, schools, hospitals, and clinics;

 

·         $1.6 billion is requested for family housing construction and privatization projects;

 

·         $1 billion for reserve component construction, including readiness centers, training facilities, and related construction necessary for the training and administration of the reserve components;

 

·         $476 million for various Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) accounts;

 

·         $254 million to fund the U.S. share of joint U.S.-NATO military facilities; and,

 

·         $151 million for chemical demilitarization construction.

 

S. 3215 provides $135.6 billion for VA accounts, a total of $13.8 billion above FY 2012 funding amounts. $74.6 billion will go to mandatory programs – compensation and pension, insurance, and VA housing – while discretionary programs will receive $60.9 billion. In addition, the Senate committee approved $165 million in additional funds over the amounts passed last year for FY 2013. These added amounts were a result of specific need, including updates to VA medical care projections for the coming year. These areas include: $155 million for medical care; $8 million for the Board of Veterans Appeals to address the immense backlog of appeals; and $2 million for the Office of the Inspector General.

 

The chart below indicates VA’s medical care accounts with FY 2013 VA discretionary funding, the President’s proposed FY 2014 advance appropriations for the medical care accounts, the funding amounts passed by the House and Senate Appropriations committees, and The American Legion’s proposed appropriations as presented to Congress last September by National Commander Wong.

 

 

Final FY 2013

Advance Appropriations

P.L. 112-74

President’s FY 2014 VA Advance

Appropriations

H.R. 5854,

FY 2014

House Proposal

S. 3215,

FY 2014 Senate Proposal

American Legion’s

FY 2014

Request

Medical Services

$41.3 billion

$41.5 billion

$41.5 billion

$43.6 billion

$44 billion

Medical Support & Compliance

$5.3 billion

$5.7 billion

$5.7 billion

$6.0 billion

$5.5 billion

Medical Facilities

$5.7 billion

$5.4 billion

$5.4 billion

$4.9 billion

$6.0 billion

Medical/Prosthetic Research #

$581million

$583 million

$600 million

$583 million

$600 million

Total Medical Care

$52.9 billion

$53.1 billion

$53.2 billion

$55.0 billion

$56.1 billion

 

# This account is *not* included in the advance appropriations calculations.

 

The chart below presents funding for non-medical VA programs, showing FY 2012, the President’s FY 2013 proposal, the funding amounts passed by the House and Senate Appropriations committees, and The American Legion’s proposal for FY 2013.

 

 

Final FY 2012 Appropriations

P.L. 112-74

President’s

FY 2013 Budget Proposal

H.R. 5854,

House FY 2013 Proposal

S. 3215,

Senate FY 2013 Proposal

Legion’s

FY 2013 Request

National Cemetery Administration

$251 million

$258 million

$258 million

$258 million

$260 million

General Operating Expenses – VBA

$2.0 billion

$2.2 billion

$2.2 billion

$2.2 billion

$2.2 billion

Information Technology

$3.1 billion

$3.3 billion

$3.3 billion

$3.3 billion

$3.3 billion

Major Construction

$590 million

$532 million

$532 million

$532 million

$5.3 billion

  Major Construction – NCA

$38 million

$10 million

------------

------------

$100 million

Minor Construction

$482 million

$608 million

$608 million

$608 million

$1.2 billion

  Minor Construction – NCA

$42 million

$58 million

------------

------------

$100 million

State Homes Construction Grants

$85 million

$85 million

$85 million

$85 million

$85 million

State Cemetery Construction Grants

$46 million

$46 million

$46 million

$46 million

$50 million

Total VA Construction

$1.20 billion

$1.27 billion

$1.27 billion

$1.27 billion

$7.85 billion

 

Some specific areas of funding in S. 3215 include:

 

·         $7.2 billion for long term care for the nation’s aging veterans as well as the severely wounded combat veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan;

 

·         $5.8 billion for health care and support services for homeless veterans;

 

·         $403 million to meet the unique needs of women veterans;

 

·         $250 million for medical services for veterans in rural and highly rural areas, including Native American veterans; and,

 

·         $86 million for the Board of Veterans Appeals, to address the increasing backlog of appeals claims.

 

Other accounts in the measure which are followed by The American Legion include:

 

·         $74 million for the American Battle Monument Commission (ABMC);

 

·         $32 million for the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims;

 

·         $149 million for Arlington National Cemetery, which includes an additional $103 million for expansion of the cemetery; and,

 

·         $68 million for operations, maintenance, and the capital plan for the Armed Forces Retirement Home.

 

The House began debate on Thursday on H.R. 5854, that probably won’t be much of a debate at all. House appropriators think they found a way to balance the checkbook, honor the government’s commitment to 22 million military veterans and families, and still boost spending on them all next year. House members say shifting $24 billion from the military construction budget will funnel more money to the programs and services promised to veterans, and less in government infrastructure, while maintaining current overall spending levels. But with health care and other costs skyrocketing, Congress is attaching new restrictions on federal agency spending. The floor vote is not expected until Friday.

 

House Passes Servicemember Family Protection Act

 

On May 30, the House of Representatives voted 390-2 to pass H.R. 4201, the “Servicemember Family Protection Act.” This bill amends the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (Public Law 108-189) to provide The Servicemember Family Protection Act would prevent family court judges from basing custody decisions primarily on a service member’s past or future deployments. It also would prevent courts from making changes to custody determinations while a parent is deployed overseas. The Act redefines deployment to include humanitarian operations or unaccompanied overseas tours.

 

Under current law, deployed service members temporarily lose full-time child custody while overseas. Sometimes, another parent takes advantage of the complex custody situation to make the temporary custody changes permanent. The Servicemember Family Protection Act would prevent courts from making these types of permanent changes to custody while a parent is deployed.

 

Some incarnation of H.R. 4201 has had bipartisan support in the House for a few years, but the legislation often gets tied up in the Senate Armed Services Committee. It has also traditionally lacked the support of the Defense Department, which has claimed that child support issues should be left to the states.

 

The measure now goes to the Senate for further action.

 

 

 

Senate Appropriations Panel Approves FY 2013 NDAA

 

On May 24 the Senate Armed Services Committee completed its markup of its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2013, approving the draft bill by a 26-0 vote. This followed the approval of the bill on May 10 by the House Armed Services Committee by a vote of 56-5. The legislation provides the pay, funding and authorities for America’s men and women in uniform, and is the key mechanism by which Congress fulfills its primary constitutional responsibility to “provide for the common defense.”

 

The bill authorizes funding for national defense at $543.1 billion for the base budget – including national security programs in the Department of Energy – and an additional $88.5 billion for overseas contingency operations. It is $234 million less than the President’s budget request.

 

Some of the specific areas of the draft bill include:

 

·         Troop Pay – The FY13 NDAA authorizes a 1.7% pay increase and extends bonuses and special pay for our men and women in uniform.

 

·         TRICARE – The FY13 NDAA restates the firmly-held sense of Congress that prior service to our nation is a pre-payment of healthcare benefits in retirement. As such, it rejects the President’s proposal to increase some TRICARE fees and establish new TRICARE fees.

 

·          Active Duty Strength – The measure sets active-duty end strengths for 2013 for the Army at 552,100; the Navy, 332,700; the Marine Corps, 197,300, and the Air Force, 329,957.

 

·         Impact Aid to DOD Schools – This bill would authorize a total of $30 million in supplemental impact aid to local educational agencies with military dependent children, including those with severe disabilities.

 

·         Defense Health Program – A total of $32.9 billion is authorized for this program.

 

·         Support for Israel. Supports key allies, including Israeli Cooperative Missile Defense programs like Iron Dome.

 

·         Homeland Missile Defense. Authorizes a total of $9.7 billion for missile defense programs, especially against nations such as Iran and North Korea.

 

·         Cyber. Increases oversight on development of cyber operations capabilities.

 

·         Counternarcotics Program – Provides $1.5 billion for DOD-wide program.

 

·         Chemical and Biological Matters – Authorizes $1.5 billion for chemical demilitarization programs, in addition to $1.4 billion for the Chemical and Biological Defense Programs.

 

        Counter-IED. Includes $1.7 billion to counter-IED funding to protect the troops on the ground.

 

        Airborne Electronic Warfare – Maintains the option for additional airborne electronic warfare capabilities by supporting advance procurement for the EA-18G.

 

        Army Ground Combat. Fully funds $640 million for the Army Ground Combat Vehicle development program.

 

        Aircraft. Fully funds a total of $3 billion in requests for AH-64 Apaches, UH-60 Blackhawks, and CH-47 Chinooks, as well as a total of $10 billion for F-35 Lightning II aircraft and F-18 E/F Super Hornets.

 

        Submarines and Destroyers. Authorizes multi-year procurement for Virginia-class submarines and DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

 

The Senate Armed Services Committee met behind closed doors last week to develop that chamber’s version of the NDAA. The Senate NDAA more closely resembles the President’s budget vision than its House companion measure. The President has already threatened to veto the House version of the NDAA if it reaches his desk intact.

 

 

 

LEGISLATIVE DIVISION ACTIONS

 

House VA Subpanel Examines VA Purchases of Prosthetics

 

On Wednesday, May 30 the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation held an alliteratively titled hearing on VA prosthetics entitled “Purchasing Perspective: VA’s Prosthetics Paradox.” This hearing was in many ways a follow-up to a previous hearing of the Health Subcommittee examining VA’s prosthetics program, under the scrutiny of the overall committee for concerns about the direction VA is taking in the management of the overall prosthetic program. The primary focus of Wednesday’s hearing was abuses in prosthetic contracting, highlighted in a recent report by VA’s Office of the Inspector General.

 

Chairman Bill Johnson (OH) was sharply critical of VA in his opening remarks, noting discrepancies in past behavior regarding acquisition regulations and questioning the commitment now of VA as the department states it is working to comply with those regulations. The subcommittee’s ranking member Joe Donnelly (IN) was equally concerned with possible failings in VA practices, but eager to hear how they intended to remedy complaints brought about in the OIG report.

 

Early panel witnesses represented interested players in the prosthetic market who raised concerns about recent statements from the VA, in which VA officials noted, “The new regulations would only apply to purchases over $3,000 and 97 percent of the purchases do not fall under that category so the new regulations will not be disruptive.” Daniel Shaw, Managing Partner of Academy Medical LLC, a biologics company whose work falls under the scope of prosthetics, stated, “Each component piece of most modern prosthetics usually exceeds $3,000 so it’s hard to see how this will not have a major impact.”

 

Linda Halliday, Assistant Inspector General for Audits and Evaluations at OIG, delivered testimony about the OIG’s most recent report. Noting the increased scope of prosthetics in VA recently, she cited that over the past four years, VA’s prosthetics budget has increased from $1 billion to $1.8 billion, nearly doubling expenditures. The OIG indentified problems with a lack of internal controls over payments for prosthetic limbs, noting overpayments in 23 percent of all transactions in 2010. According to OIG research, VA overpaid vendors approximately $2.2 million out of just under $50 million spent on prosthetic limbs. While this is only about 4 percent of total spending in this category, it was clear better controls were needed.

 

The OIG also found VISN contracting officers were not always negotiating to obtain the best pricing in these areas. Both problems have been discussed with VA according to Ms. Halliday, and OIG was awaiting the results of a follow-up to determine how well VA was rectifying the situation. Ms. Halliday did note that VA was amenable to the criticisms and was working to correct the errors.

 

When questioned by the committee as to whether or not VA would be able to recoup some, if not all, of the overpayments to the vendors, both OIG and VA agreed it was very likely the errors would be corrected as it was in the best business interests of the vendors to maintain a good working relationship with VA in the interests of future business. Given the nature of the ongoing oversight, and that the report was recent and VA must still be given time to follow up on the results, future inquiry into this area is likely and was promised by Chairman Johnson and the members of the Subcommittee.

 

 

 

House Veterans Affairs Hearing on Implementation of the VOW Act

 

On Thursday, May 31st, the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing for updates on the VOW to Hire Heroes Act.  VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey provided insight on the VA aspects of implementation while Dept. of Labor (DOL) Deputy Assistant Secretary Ismael “Junior” Ortiz provided analysis of their efforts.

 

The VOW to Hire Heroes Act was passed in November 2011 and contained bipartisan, bicameral efforts aimed to improve veteran employment opportunities and training.  A multi-pronged approach, it contained tax benefits for employment of disabled and severely disabled veterans, changes to the Transition Assistance Program, and the Veteran Retraining and Assistance Program (VRAP).  VRAP was intended to address educational or training needs of veterans aged 35-64, who comprise two-thirds of the unemployed veterans, by provided GI Bill benefits for up to one year of training if the veteran has exhausted all other educational opportunities, is currently unemployed, and not utilizing other retraining programs.  The majority of the hearing was focused on the implementation of VRAP.

 

On May 15th, the VA began accepting applications for VRAP.  On July 1st, VA can begin to pay veterans eligible for this training.  As of May 31st, VA had accepted approximately 11,600 applications for the benefit and approved 1,400 in just seven days.  Approximately 23% of the applicants have been denied primarily because they don’t meet one of the qualifications.  In total, VA will be able to grant 45,000 grants during FY12.

 

One of the issues identified by the Committee was the non-transferability of the award.  If a veteran is approved to attend a specific school, and for some reason, he or she does not complete the program, the entire award is deducted from the 45,000 grants.  This is occurring due to a VA interpretation of the law.  Both the Committee and VA felt this was disadvantageous to the veteran and pledged to address it.

 

Perhaps the greatest issue revolved around the marketing of the program.  In February, Undersecretary Hickey told the Committee VA would be utilizing a paid nationwide publicity plan to educate veterans on the benefit and drive prospective applicants to apply.  DOL failed to provide adequate information and material to their offices throughout the nation – doing so only days before the program was set to accept applications.  VA has utilized a loose network of word of mouth, press releases by veteran service organizations and other advocates, and the pledged assistance of other entities.  None of these efforts rise to the nationwide paid publicity that had been promised.  All the members of the committee expressed consternation in this effort.

 

Ultimately, in the two years this program is authorized, it is incumbent upon the VA and veteran service organizations to show the need and success of this program.  If eligible veterans aren’t aware of the program, they will not be driven to apply and therefore not receive the benefit or the retraining essential in employment.  If applicant numbers remain low, future efforts to continue this program will fall victim to scrutiny by those who note the low application numbers.  It is incumbent upon the VA, The American Legion, and veteran advocates everywhere to maximize efforts for veterans to utilize this benefit.

 

 

 

Panel Discusses Defense and the Current Fiscal Crisis

 

On Thursday, May 31st the Heritage Foundation hosted a panel discussion focused on examining the role of the federal government in providing for the common defense as mandated in the Constitution, and how the current fiscal crisis is affecting the government’s ability to effectively perform this function. The panel consisted of Heritage Foundation fellow Stuart Butler, Ph.D; former mayor of Cincinnati the Honorable Ken Blackwell; Heritage Foundation Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies Kim Holmes, Ph.D; and Representative Trent Franks (R-AZ).

 

Mr. Blackwell addressed the problem of growing entitlements undermining the federal government’s ability to provide effective national defense. He further stated that the undermining and breakdown of the nuclear family has contributed to the increase in entitlements, as economically, families are much more capable of providing for themselves. Additionally, he discussed the problem of the national debt, and pointed out that 47% of the debt is held by foreign interests, with the bulk being held by China.

 

Dr. Stuart stated that defense should be thought about in the same way that we think about insurance policies: we should invest in them, and maintain them, even if we never have to use them; in fact, it is preferable that we never should have to. He asserted that a strong military is important not only for the maintenance of physical freedom, but also for economic freedom and growth. The stability provided by a strong defense allows for the rule of law, which in turn promotes the ability to enter into contracts, and engage in trade with predictability and the assurance that the transaction will be beneficial to both parties engaged in the economic activity. 

 

Dr. Holmes promoted the idea that the maintenance of a strong military is crucial to the peace and prosperity of the United States. After World War I, the United States largely drew down its forces; this proved to be a mistake in light of the advent of World War II, he said. Not only was there little military deterrent to prevent, for instance, the Japanese from attacking Pearl Harbor, but additionally, it proved quite costly to attempt a rapid revitalization of the military, a cost which might have been avoided had the strong military been retained after World War I, he said.

 

Rep. Franks emphasized the idea that nature of the threat currently faced internationally is unlike any we have faced before. The combination of nuclear weapons and Islamic terrorism creates an existential threat more dangerous than anything which has existed up to this time. Furthermore, he drew attention to the vulnerability of our national infrastructure, both military and civilian, to an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) attack. The SHIELD Act (H.R. 668), which Rep. Franks has introduced, would work to put protections against EMP attack in place.

 

 

 

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 35. To date, H.J. Res. 13 – the House companion to the Senate measure – has accumulated 87 cosponsors, with the addition this week of Delegate Madeleine Z. Bordallo (Guam).

 

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 May 31 The American Legion sent a letter of support to Rep. Ted Poe (TX), giving our organization’s support for H.R. 938, the “Frank Buckles World War I Memorial Act.” This measure would establish a commission to ensure the suitable observance of the 100th anniversary of World War I, and to designate memorials to the service of men and women of the U.S. during that conflict.

 

 

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