LEGION-RELATED LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS
DOD Sequester Update
The President asked Congress for it; Congress passed it; and the President signed it into law. The sequester is law and that law takes effect today, March 1; sequestration now begins because Congress and the President were unable to change this law.
It is too early today to report exactly how those reductions will be made. And please bear in mind these are reductions. No actual cuts to overall government spending will be made by sequestration, only a reduction in the rate of growth of government spending is being made. However, $85 Billion in across-the-board budget cuts begins today. But first the President has to sign an order for more precisely how these reductions will be made (the Office of Management and Budget is the action agency tasked for developing this order). And before any federal civilian employee is furloughed (the military is exempt by Presidential order) the government must first identify those nonessential employees, and those identified must receive a 30-day notice. In addition, all employees have seven days in which to appeal their furlough order.
There are some unanswered questions as well. One is whether the President will grant budget flexibility to federal agencies. Flexibility to move their money between their accounts appears to be a better idea than just adopting a percentage across-the-board reduction. However, the White House claims it has no authority to allow such cuts due to its disputes with Congress. However, it should be noted the president has a past practice of making unilateral decisions to interpret laws. For example, with the sequestration law, as noted above he exempted military pay from sequestration, and he exempted the Department of Veterans Affairs. With regard to federal contractor employee notice of furlough, however, last fall he decided that although war spending is subject to sequestration; defense contractors did not need to follow the law and issue layoff notices. Thus, if contracts will be altered there may be a notice period that still must be given to these contractor employees that are affected by sequestration.
With regard to defense spending, and because military pay is exempt, other Pentagon accounts will be taking a heavier reduction of funding as that money going for military pay must be made up for somewhere else in the Pentagon’s budget. Per testimony from military and civilian Pentagon witnesses it appears the Pentagon will target modernization and readiness accounts for the brunt of these reductions. The American Legion, however, wants no further reductions in Pentagon accounts as it feels this will be a disastrous public policy decision for our national security. Modernization is the purchase of new equipment needed for an uncertain future. Readiness is how we pay to train and equip our military forces now.
Like the Legion’s concern for the billion dollar reduction in VA medical major construction which means ever increasing maintenance costs for ever aging buildings, this delay in military modernization will cause costs to rise in order to maintain aging military equipment that has been heavily used in over ten years of warfare. The loss of readiness funding means our current service members will be subject to longer deployments, their families subject to greater stresses due to their family member being constantly in harm’s way, war equipment will further degrade due to lack of parts and replacement with new equipment, and, of course, due to equipment overuse there will more breakdowns of this equipment over time, and lastly, units that remain in home station will not have enough funds for training and supplies to deploy. [Resolution #55-F-2012]
House Veterans Affairs Committee Hearing – Electronic Health Record U-Turn: Are VA and DOD Headed in the Right Direction
On February 27, 2013, the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing to examine the recent announcement by VA and DoD that they would no longer continue to pursue the Virtual Electronic Lifetime Record (VELR) program which they had been pursuing, at a cost of nearly $1 billion, for the past 4 years. Witnesses included Roger W. Baker, Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology and Chief Information Officer U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs accompanied by Dr. Robert A. Petzel, M.D., Under Secretary for Health Veterans, Health Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Jonathan A. Woodson, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Director, TRICARE Management Activity U.S. Department of Defense accompanied by Elizabeth A. McGrath, Deputy Chief Management Officer U.S. Department of Defense; Valerie C. Melvin, Director, Information Management and Technology Resources Issues U.S. Government Accountability Office; and Jacob B. Gadd, Deputy Director for Healthcare, National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division, The American Legion.
Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (FL) opened the hearing by noting that the committee was surprised by the announcement that VA and DoD were scrapping their plans to move forward with the VELR which was currently in progress. As recently as December, 2012, the committee had been told that the project was coming along as planned, and even ahead of schedule. He expressed further disappointment that the committee was not informed of the decision, but rather had to read about it in a news report. Furthermore, he stated that the money already spent had proven to be a poor investment, and would have been better spent providing other services to active troops and veterans. Ranking Member Michael Michaud echoed these sentiments, and added that "VA was once a leader in electronic innovation, but it is now struggling to keep up."
Mr. Baker assured the committee that VA and DoD were both still committed to creating a VELR, but admitted that they have done a poor job communicating with the committee. Mr. Baker noted that the departments are close to a graphic user interface (GUI) which should allow the different systems utilized by the departments to talk to each other. He stated that the decision to change the direction allowed for a change of goals in order to solve problems which were inherent in the original goals, specifically those regarding cost and risks related to the loss of records.
Mr. Woodson testified that the goal was still to create a system of records which transfer seamlessly from DoD to VA, and remain with the servicemember for life. He noted that the GUI was not a permanent solution, but was rather an interim step toward the creation of a unified system. While there still remains a goal to have a system online by December of 2013, the system is no longer being built from scratch, Mr. Woodson said. The primary concern was the constraints of the budget, which led to a reconsideration of the approach, and was ordered by the directors of the departments. Delaying the decision, he said, would have increased both costs and risks.
Ms. Melvin stated that persistent challenges are what have ultimately delayed working toward an integrated system. While the departments have long ago recognized the need, inadequate accountability and poor oversight have hindered progress. GAO has made numerous recommendations aimed at moving forward on these issues, but they must be heeded and implemented in order to do any good.
Jacob Gadd, Deputy Director of The American Legion’s VA & R division, testified that "Veterans are not getting the single system they were promised. As long as VA and DOD remain in separate camps, pursuing their own individual systems, it’s the veterans that will be short-changed". He noted that he was there to represent the impact that a lack of such a system has had, and continues to have on veterans, including the growing claims and healthcare backlog "Getting all the information into one place can be the key to finally breaking the back of the backlog," he said. "VA and DOD have spent four years and close to a billion dollars to develop this and we’re in the same place we were in four years ago ... Until they fulfill the promise made to veterans of a single, seamless, unified record, the veterans of this country will remain skeptical of their government’s ability to deliver on all of the promises made to them."
In questioning, Chairman Miller chided DoD, saying that the problem seemed to rest in a showdown between DoD and VA, wherein DoD seems least willing to give ground. [Resolution #42-2012]
House Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommittee Hearing
On February 26 the subcommittee held its first hearing of the year on the topic of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) fiscal challenges. During the hearing full Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (KY) was unable to stay for the entire hearing, as he left to meet with House leadership on the need to include actual appropriations language in whatever replaces the current continuing resolution (CR), which expires March 27.
General Raymond T. Odierno, Army Chief of Staff
Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations
General James F. Amos, Commandant, Marine Corps
General Mark A. Welsh, III, Air Force Chief of Staff
General Frank J. Grass, Chief of the National Guard Bureau (NGB)
Subcommittee Chairman Bill Young (FL) commented that, when he first invited the witnesses for this hearing, he envisioned a discussion on the long-term needs of DoD in meeting missions around the globe. Instead, current event have overtaken the agenda, and sequestration is almost upon them. He is even more concerned with the possibility of the imposition of a year-long CR. He worries this would be devastating for DoD.
Subcommittee Ranking Member Pete Visclosky (IN) agreed with the importance of the CR. He noted that often now Congress is governing by looking backward. He described himself as "appalled" they were meeting on these issues and wasting so much time. He accused Congress of abdicating its governing responsibility in allowing sequestration and the possibility of another CR.
Full Committee Chairman Rogers acknowledged the "twin threats" DoD faces of sequestration and possibility of another CR. He asked what DoD will need, and offered his suggestion: a date change on the CR and inclusion of the Defense and military construction conference reports agreed upon last year in whatever is passed to keep the government operating past March 27. He said he fully supports the goal of providing more flexibility for DoD in spending its money for the rest of the year. Sequestration is "terrible politics and terrible policy." He accused the President of a lack of leadership in this area.
Full committee Ranking Member Nita Lowey (NY) commented that she believes some agreement could be reached if just a few of the Members were allowed to work one out. Rogers agreed with her. Lowey said it is "essential" to avoid sequestration. She called for a balanced approach that closes tax loopholes in addition to selected spending reductions.
General Odierno made the same statement he made before the Armed Services Committees: he began his career in a hollow Army, and does not want to it end it in one. In his opinion, the greatest threat to national security is the budget uncertainty facing the DoD. Between the sequester and the CR, the Army is facing an $18 Billion shortfall in its Operations and Maintenance accounts, all of which will need to be accounted for in the last seven months of the fiscal year. This will limit the Army’s ability to train its people, including special operations forces. These effects will be immediate and will negatively impact the ability to send appropriately trained Soldiers to Afghanistan in 2014. Approximately 3100 temporary and term employees have already been terminated and the Department is under a hiring freeze. Civilian employees will be furloughed up to 22 days. Within the medical system, civilian employees represent 60% of the workforce, which means a degraded ability to care for Soldiers and their families. On bases, civilian furloughs represent up to70% reductions in base maintenance funding and contract terminations mean a lower ability to safeguard and care for families. This includes the closing of facilities such as day care centers. Sequestration will result in delays to the modernization programs. It will also require the closure of excess base capacity. He called upon Congress to avoid sending Soldiers to war that are not fully trained, equipped, and well led. He commented that, even doing everything he mentioned in his statement, the Army still comes up $4 Billion short in making all of the cuts required by sequestration and the CR.
Admiral Greenert talked about the degraded readiness posed by sequestration and continuation of the CR. That is in the near term. In the long term, the Navy simply will not be able to provide the capabilities upon which the country has come to depend. He described the money and opportunities that have already been lost in anticipation of sequestration and that the problem is only going to get worse as time goes on.
General Amos testified about the "devastating" impact sequestration will have upon the nation’s security. It poses an unacceptable risk. He noted that allowing this disruption to the US’ ability to protect itself and its allies will have negative global implications. Under a combination of sequestration and the CR, it will become increasingly difficult to keep Marine units ready for deployment. "We are eating our seed corn to meet current demands." Amos warned that this leads to a hollow force. Sequestration is already hurting people. The Marines’ combat edge will be degraded through the lowered levels of training and equipment. Morale will inevitably suffer as family programs suffer. Similarly, civilian employees will be hurt. They, their families, and their local economies will only be hurt by furloughs and other sequestration impacts.
General Welsh described the impact of sequestration on the Air Force. Air time will be reduced to the point at most home bases that most units will no longer meet readiness levels by mid-May. As with the other Services, modernization programs will stop. This is especially harmful, given the age of much of the Air Force’s aircraft. If sequestration cannot be stopped, He asked that the Services at least be given as much spending flexibility as possible.
General Grass talked about how the current budget situation puts readiness at risk. He discussed that the Guard came to the aid of citizens after Hurricane Sandy and the recent snowstorms and that under sequestration, the Guard’s ability to respond to those situations will be eroded. The furloughs alone will mean the loss of 9 million man hours of productivity.
Questions and Answers
RM Lowey noted the high number of veterans hired by DoD on a regular basis, and asked about the impact of sequestration on veteran unemployment levels. Odierno said hiring freezes apply to veterans the same as anyone else. He said as the Army downsizes he expects to transition 200,000 Soldiers a year off active duty and the reserve components, but the Army is committed to helping them transition to civilian life successfully, including finding employment. Lowey asked Odierno what he saw in the hollow force when he first started. The general said there was not enough training and a lack of discipline due to a lack of resources. In the 1980s and 1990s, end strength matched up with the resources needed. He said DoD needs the flexibility to maintain that balance. In addition, they must be able to maintain the capacity to meet demands.
Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen (NJ) got reassurances by Odierno’s ‘comfort’ with previously proposed downsizing levels. However, under sequestration, another 100,000 Soldiers will need to be let go. This will impact readiness levels, including frequency of deployments. Grass talked about the Guard’s response to sequestration. It could be forced to downsize below an ability to respond to national homeland security needs, both for natural and manmade disasters.
Representative Jim Moran (VA) brought up shortfalls in overseas contingency operations (OCO) funding. Initially, the amount it would cost to redeploy people and equipment out of Afghanistan was underestimated. More money was required by the need to use the longer, more expensive shipping routes. Since the Afghanistan bills have to be paid, money has to be moved from things such as training and maintenance for the rest of 2013 to make up the $18 billion shortfall. That will result in even greater shortfalls in 2014, as delayed maintenance and lack of training means even further degradation. Greenert said the Navy’s shortfall is $15 billion. They are trying to "slow the burn rate." This means things such as not deploying the Truman to CENTCOM and other lost readiness opportunities. Some accounts, such as investment, have more money than expected. Greenert would like to have the flexibility to move that money into operations, but does not have it under the CR. The other witnesses had similar remarks.
Representative Kay Granger (TX) brought up that Soldiers are being diagnosed with medical conditions allowing discharged rather than receiving a diagnosis of PTSD as their medical condition for discharge. She told about a particular constituent who claimed he was physically assaulted by two officers from the Warrior Transition Unit when he complained about being diagnosed with a heart ailment rather than PTSD and was refused treatment for PTSD. Odierno replied that the Army has conducted investigations in response to these charges. He believes they are individual incidents and are not representative of the system. Overall, the system is good, but "there are outliers." Odierno promised that he is committed to ensuring that the men and women in the Army receive the best care possible. The report on this issue will be released soon. Granger stated she is still worried, given that she has heard these stories repeatedly over the years.
Representative Betty McCollum (MN) said those in DoD and their families have been asked to sacrifice everything, while the rest of the American people have not been asked to sacrifice anything to pay for the wars over the last ten years. She asked the witnesses about the impact of sequestration upon military families and, as a result, on the military’s ability to retain the best and the brightest. Amos replied the furloughs will mean a 20% reduction in the availability of everything provided by the civilian workforce: child care, mental health care, etc. He added this degradation in services will most likely also result in a hesitation among young people being willing to join the Marines in the first place. Odierno talked about the importance of keeping faith with service members and their families. Some services will have to be reduced. He mentioned victim advocate support to domestic violence victims and child care as examples, and said even as the programs are sustained, some of their capabilities will have to be reduced. Welsh said that the uncertainty absolutely must have an impact upon every service member. This comes out in terms of morale. Grass said the Guard relies heavily upon the availability of mental health services to sustain families during deployments, and to help members upon their return home. Sequestration could mean that this help is not available. The NGB is working with the VA on this issue, but it is a problem.
Representative Ander Crenshaw (FL) brought up the Navy’s ship maintenance needs. He observed that, in the long run, delaying maintenance can cost more money or even make an asset unusable. Beyond that, the Navy needs enough ships to perform all of the missions which it has been tasked. Greenert ran through the risks and strategies considered in deploying ships around the world. Among other considerations, not deploying some ships means some drug traffickers will not be interdicted and some pirates will not be stopped. As for maintenance, Greenert agreed that delays often mean higher costs in later years.
Representative Ken Calvert (CA) was concerned about the impact of the budget situation upon acquisition programs. Odierno said these programs will be stretched out over longer periods of time, which means the Army will have to pay more per unit.
Representative Tim Ryan (OH) spoke in favor of the Mind Training Institute and the work it is doing to build resiliency within the men and women in the military. He is also upset over the loss of flying hours, and the fact the Air Force will be non-mission capable by July and will need another six months to regain that ability. Welsh and Greenert talked about the impact of sequestration upon cyber-warfare efforts. Much of the cyber workforce is civilian, who will be furloughed. Odierno added that the Army is becoming more engaged in cyber as well and is a key component to future strategy. However, as investment is increased in cyber, other areas will have to be reduced as sequestration goes into effect. He confirmed, however, that the increase will continue even under sequestration, just more slowly.
Representative Jo Bonner (AL) asked what else the President should be doing. Amos said that it appears to him the President truly does not want sequestration to take place. Odierno explained sequestration will lead to a loss of capacity, which will result in a global inability to deter other actors from working to harm the US and its allies. Amos said the Marines have already had to cancel participation in international exercises in SOUTHCOM and other areas. Not only does this erode training, but it also eliminates opportunities to build trust with those allies. That trust is needed in times of crisis, and cannot be built quickly.
Representative Bill Owens (NY) said there is ongoing concern over staffing shortages among mental health providers at Fort Drum. Odierno replied the Army has tried to hire all the mental health providers they need, but there is a shortage of qualified people nationwide. In addition, under sequestration, some positions are likely to be lost anyway.
Representative Marcy Kaptur (OH) called upon Congress to return to ‘regular order’ in setting budgets. [Note: this means appropriations are legislated through the use of bills having hearings in the subcommittee and committee system in both chambers and then being passed out of committee and then passed on the chamber floors in full debate.] Odierno said the best way to take care of Soldiers is to ensure they are the best trained and equipped when they go on missions, and that they return. It bothers him he is facing the possibility of not being able to provide those conditions. Greenert added it bothers him the civilian workforce, most of which does not live within the Beltway, will be bearing so much of the brunt of sequestration. Grass discussed the medical benefits provided to the Guard, including dental benefits, and the important role they play in maintaining readiness of those troops. Under sequestration, those dental benefits "will go away." Kaptur brought up research on the influence of a violent family background upon a service member’s "aberrant behavior" in the Service. She suggested the witnesses should consider this kind of research in making enlistment decisions.
Visclosky asked whether having specific appropriations legislation for the rest of the fiscal year would help even with sequestration. Amos said an appropriations bill would give him permission to sign a multi-year acquisition contract for B-22s, which would save money in the long run. In another example, there is money sitting unused in military construction he cannot touch under the CR because of the lack of flexibility. Greenert said he would be able to start new projects and take advantage of various opportunities. The other witnesses had similar responses.
Young asked, in closing the hearing, whether the witnesses were ever asked by "higher authorities" what the effect would be of sequestration. None of the witnesses were ever asked, especially since most of them were not in their current jobs when sequestration was initially proposed by the President. Young shook his head and commented that "someone made a big mistake" by suggesting sequestration without fully considering the impact upon the nation’s security.
LEGISLATIVE DIVISION ACTIONS
The Legislative Division conducted multiple activities during the Washington Conference, held February 25-27. Legislative staff monitored and participated in the activities of many other divisions, including Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation, Economics, and National Security and Foreign Relations. Furthermore, the Legislative Commission met at the Washington Hilton on Monday, February 25 and received a report on the rebuilding of the Legislative Council. Representative Tom Cotton (R-AR-4) addressed the Commission and touched on issues of concern regarding sequestration and the defense budget, as well as other issues of national security.
The Commander’s Call, held Tuesday morning, February 26th, provided an opportunity to brief the attending Legionnaires on the current environment on Capitol Hill, as well as to fire them up and inspire them as they embarked on their meetings with members of Congress later that day. Chairman Ken Governor (NY) conducted the rally in conjunction with National Commander James Koutz (IN). After a briefing on membership conducted by Denise Rohan (WI) Chair of the Membership Commission, and addresses by Legion Auxiliary President Peggy Thomas (VA) and Sons of The American Legion National Commander Christopher Huntzinger (PA), various governmental dignitaries addressed the crowd.
Both Chairman Bernard Sanders (D-VT) of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) of the House Veterans Affairs Committee outlined what had been previously accomplished on behalf of veterans in the recent past on Capitol Hill, and addressed where they hoped to take veterans in the 113th Congress. Secretary Eric Shinseki of the Department of Veterans Affairs updated the Legion on VA’s efforts to address the claims backlog, veteran homelessness, and continued delivery of healthcare through the VA. Keith Kelly, Assistant Secretary of Labor discussed progress on veteran unemployment and job training with regards to the DOL-VETS programs. From the Department of Defense, Major general Jeffrey Snow addressed the issues of the DOD budget as it relates to the ability to secure the safety of America’s people and interests, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Rene Bardoff addressed many ongoing changes within DOD including sequestration but also other issues such as the integration of women into combat roles. Todd Veazie, the Exectuive Director of the White House’s Joining Forces program provided updates on those efforts.
The National Commander presented former Virginia Senator James Webb with the Distinguished Public Service Reward for his efforts and leadership in the passage of the landmark Post 9-11 GI Bill. Senator Webb elicited a few chuckles as he polled the audience to see how many were present when he attended The American Legion’s Washington Conference in 1979 to accept an award. The Commander’s Call concluded with a moving and rousing call to action on behalf of veterans by Freshman Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth (D-IL). Representative Duckworth recounted the harrowing tale of her helicopter shoot down in Iraq which cost her both legs and full usage of her right arm. Alternating through moments of wit, charm and poignancy, Representative Duckworth recounted what is familiar to many of the assembled veterans, that those to the left and right of her, those she served with, are still the motivating factor for getting out of bed each day and seeking to accomplish tasks great and small.
American Legion Legislative Council
The Legislative Division continues the task of re-building the membership of the National Legislative Council for the 113th Congress. Council recommendation forms were emailed to Department leadership in December, asking for nominations for new congressional members. Completed forms were due in the Legislative Division offices in Washington, DC by January 18. To date, 43 Departments have returned their Council nomination forms.
The importance of the Legislative Council cannot be overstated. It is an especially important voice for The American Legion family, and the way in which members of Congress can be quickly contacted when legislative action is needed. Departments are urged to complete their nomination forms and return them to the Legislative Division offices as soon as possible.
Update on Flag Amendment Bill
On January 18, House Joint Resolution (H.J. Res.) 19 was introduced by Representative Jo Ann Emerson (MO). This legislation is 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 next task is finding cosponsors for this legislation. Please contact the offices of your representative and senators, and ask them to become cosponsors of the flag amendment in their respective chambers. [Res. 272-2012]