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Legislative Division Update 07-27-2012

LEGISLATIVE DIVISION UPDATE

LEGION-RELATED LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS

Congressional Updates

Both the House and Senate were in session this week. Both chambers will remain in Washington through the end of the month, when they will escape from “inside the Beltway” back to their home states and districts for the summer district work period, which is August 6 through September 7. The Commander’s Testimony before the joint House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees is scheduled for October 3.

“Sequestration Transparency Act” Passes Senate, Goes to White House

The Senate on July 25 passed by voice vote the bill H.R. 5872, entitled the “Sequestration Transparency Act of 2012.” The bill passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 414-2 a week earlier. It now goes to President Obama for his signature. The bill requires the president to detail how he plans to implement the budget sequestration cuts scheduled to take place on January 2, 2013 according to current law. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will be the agency tasked to provide administration plans for implementation. Those details are due 30 days after the president signs the law.

Senate Committee Approves CRPD Treaty

On Thursday, July 26, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a business meeting to debate and vote on the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Though much of the treaty – which promotes rights for persons with disabilities around the globe, and promotes standardization of disability accommodations in ratifying nations – was noncontroversial, some senators expressed concerns about the possibility of the erosion of American sovereignty under its provisions. Amendments were offered and passed specifying that the United States will not be subjected to binding legal action under the treaty.

Additional concerns were expressed due to the inclusion of considerations regarding “sexual and reproductive rights” in the treaty. Some members stated that this language is vague, and should be clarified. Senator Marco Rubio (FL) offered an amendment which would specify that “abortion” would not be included in the definition of “sexual and reproductive rights”. Sen. John Kerry offered a Second Degree (amendment to the amendment) which generalized the language to state that the treaty will have no effect on any specific medical procedure. The amendment passed as amended by Sen. Kerry. The final vote resulted in the committee ratifying the treaty 13 to 6, and the treaty was recommended to the Senate floor.

VA and DOD Top Brass Grilled by Congress

In a hearing before a joint session of the House Committees on Veterans Affairs and Armed Services on July 25, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta summed up the status quo best when questioned by Representative Ann Marie Buerkle (NY) about the transition process for troops leaving active duty. For once eschewing the standard line of assurances that all was well and according to schedule, Panetta didn’t offer excuses or demands for more resources; he simply looked squarely at the committee and noted “The bottom line is, frankly, we’ve just got to kick ass, and try to make it happen; and that’s what we’re going to do.”

The two committees, joined together to question the respective secretaries in a manner none present could recall occurring previously, were there precisely because VA and DOD had failed to “make it happen” over the past decade. With rising numbers of troops affected by unemployment, mental health disorders and with a rising suicide rate, clearly there are difficulties in the hand-off between active duty and the civilian side world of veterans. Throughout the hearing the members of the committee would raise issues, yet all stopped short of blaming the two men sitting at the helm of these major departments of the US government. Indeed, Secretary Panetta and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki received praise from nearly all of the present lawmakers for their efforts to bring the two leviathan departments closer together and make the transition as seamless as possible.

This is not to say there were not frustrations expressed. Rep. Jeff Miller (FL), Chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee was particularly pointed in grilling the man responsible for his primary area of responsibility, the VA. Shinseki was questioned as to why, in a country where we had men walking on the Moon less than a decade after President Kennedy had thrown down that gauntlet, VA and DOD after several years of “working together” were still no closer to a unified electronic medical record. Secretary Shinseki could offer little explanation other than to note the complexity of the issue involved and to state they had agreed on the parameters such a system should encompass and that now VA and DOD were confident in their ability to reach the new deadline they had set for themselves, in 2017. Chairman Miller was not mollified by the new deadline five years down the road, and complained “[that] the goalposts continue to move.”

In a later and unrelated question, Mr. Shinseki appeared to stumble when he noted that VA would be exempt from the effects of sequestration with the exception of “Administrative Costs” and jested that he had yet to receive any good explanation of what exactly constituted “Administrative Costs.” Miller, who has been at the forefront of an ongoing bipartisan effort in both the House and Senate to pin the Office of Management and Budget down on whether or not VA will be affected by sequestration cuts, seized on this to press for further information. Has OMB related to VA any more details regarding the looming cuts? Unfortunately, Shinseki could provide no additional information and indeed the VA seems to be in the same dark absence of information as the rest of the country about the pending impact.

Overall, Secretary Panetta fared slightly better, and was less badgered by lawmakers than Shinseki and the VA in terms of responsibility for failures in transition for service members. He did acknowledge failings of the DOD in areas of mental health, noting the failures at Madigan Army Medical Center and the Army-wide review of mental health practices the investigation into that crisis triggered. Both Panetta and Shinseki acknowledged the need for better action in this area and noted ongoing coordination between the two departments to share mental health knowledge.

Both secretaries further agreed much progress was needed in the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) which was designed to replace the legacy system in which transitioning disabled veterans received separate evaluations of disabilities from their DOD branch as well as the VA. Under the new system, the same procedures and evaluative criteria are used, but time delays remain the chief concern. It now takes over 400 days to complete the process, although this is down from over 500 days on average for the process over a year ago. The target goal is apparently to drop the process down to 295 days total on average. This process includes multiple medical examinations and ongoing treatment, so there are some minimum time periods which must be considered. Obviously, a united electronic medical record such as the much delayed Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record (VLER) would be a tremendous help to the process.

Ultimately, while nearly every lawmaker present raised concerns, most seemed to express respect and confidence for the stewards of VA and DOD, if not the stewardship itself. The sheer number of members of both committees who showed up and offered input was so great the usual five minute limit for remarks by each member was reduced to two minutes, or the hearing would have lasted far longer than the nearly three hours of questioning that took place. That said, as Mr. Panetta summed up so aptly with his remark that “we’ve just got to kick ass,” VA and DOD have miles to go in terms of execution before they are meeting necessary benchmarks. While lawmakers seemed to accept the commitment of the men at the helm of these two massive departments, they were also most certainly not willing to accept the level of performance the last decade of serving the military and veterans’ communities had brought.

2013 Appropriations Update

Congress is heading into the final stretch of its summer work period having passed none of its annual spending bills. What’s more, sharp disagreements between the Democrat-controlled Senate and the GOP-run House means it’s unlikely that any of the bills will reach the president’s desk for his signature before the end of the current fiscal year on September 30. So, lawmakers are gearing up for an all-too-familiar annual routine: passing temporary, stopgap funding bills called continuing resolutions (or CRs) to avoid a government shutdown at the start of the next fiscal year Oct. 1. Only twice since 2000 have both chambers passed all 12 appropriations bills in time for the start of the fiscal year. The following articlefrom The Hill newspaper in Washington, DC well describes the political dynamics which will determine how long the expected CR will last.

Conservatives urge Cantor to push spending fight into 2013

By Russell Berman - 07/25/12

House conservatives are urging Majority Leader Eric Cantor (VA) to back a stopgap spending bill that would extend into 2013 and take the issue of government funding off the table during the election and the jammed lame-duck session this fall. Cantor attended a meeting Wednesday of the conservative Republican Study Committee, where lawmakers voiced support for passing a long-term continuing resolution (CR) when federal funding runs out at the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

While conservatives led a fight for deep spending cuts in a continuing resolution in 2011, they are worried that Democrats will draw them into a battle that could lead to a government shutdown in October, right before the November elections. They also want a stopgap measure to extend beyond the end of the year so that Democrats cannot use it as leverage in a broader fight over expiring tax rates and automatic spending cuts. The goal of a continuing resolution that would last up to six months is to “take the issue out of Harry Reid’s hands,” one GOP aide said, referring to the Democratic Senate majority leader. Deciding the bulk of 2013 federal funding after Jan. 1 could also allow conservatives to wait for a new Republican president and GOP control of the Senate, if the party is successful in November.

Two leading members of the Republican Study Committee, Chairman Jim Jordan (OH), and Rep. Scott Garrett (NJ), are supportive of the idea. The conservatives are willing to consider higher spending levels than they have voted for in the past to get a long-term continuing resolution, the aide said. No one in the meeting stood up to express support for a government shutdown fight in September, the aide said. Freshman Rep. Mick Mulvaney (SC) also said conservatives might be willing to accept provisions in a stopgap spending bill that they otherwise would oppose, such as continued funding of the 2010 healthcare law. Conservatives have previously urged the Republican leadership to keep fighting to defund the law in appropriations bills. Cantor heard lawmakers speak about a variety of issues, with members voicing the fear that pushing a host of major items to the lame duck session would force them to take votes with little debate or notice.

The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Hal Rogers (KY), favors a three-month funding extension based roughly on current spending levels, which is $1.043 trillion. That level is higher than the level approved in the House GOP budget, $1.028 trillion. A three-month bill would force Congress to tackle the funding issue again during the lame duck session after the election. Rep. Steny Hoyer (MD), the Democratic whip, noted that Senate Republicans have, for the most part, already endorsed the $1.043 trillion level. He predicted that House GOP leaders would follow suit.

"The Republicans do not want to shut down the government, they do not want to have a confrontation in September," Hoyer said during a breakfast in Washington sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "I think we'll probably do a CR. I don't know what the time-frame will be," he said. "I don't necessarily have a preference, although I think that I would certainly not be opposed to a six-month [extension]." Hoyer added that any extension at current spending levels is "probably not a bad deal for us [Democrats]."

LEGISLATIVE DIVISION ACTIONS

American Legion National Legislative Council

The Legislative Division continues the task of compiling the National Legislative Council Consolidated Activities Report for 2011-2012. The forms have been emailed to each Department Vice Chairman. Department Adjutants and National Executive Committeemen were also sent a copy.

NEC Resolution No. 28, passed October 19-20, 1994 reads in part: each National Vice Chairman of the Legislative Council shall submit an annual report on the Council member activities in his/her Department to the National Legislative Council Chairman not later than July 31 each year. We need 100 percent of the reports returned in order to compile the Report for the Pre-Convention National Executive Committee meeting. If you have any questions or need further assistance, please contact Jeff Steele at (202)-263-2987 or jsteele@legion.org.

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 36, with the addition last week of Sen. Pat Toomey (PA). To date, H.J. Res. 13 – the House companion to the Senate measure – has accumulated 89 cosponsors.

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.

The American Legion Legislative Division

(202) 263-5752

For Week Ending 07-27-12

 

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