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Legislative Division Update 03-22-2013

LEGION-RELATED LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS

CONGRESSIONAL UPDATES

Budget Legislation Update

On Thursday, March 21 the House of Representatives gave final approval to H.R. 933, legislation to fund all federal government programs for the remainder of the current fiscal year until September 30. The vote was 318-109, after the Senate had passed the measure on Wednesday by unanimous consent. The bill now goes to the White House for the President’s signature – hopefully before next Wednesday, when the current spending bill expires.

House Armed Services Subcommittee Considers Further Base Closings

On March 14, the Legislative staff attended this hearing as the subcommittee met to consider the possibility of another round of base closings (also known as Base Realignment and Closure or BRAC). In recent hearings about sequestration, Army Chief of Staff General Odierno has mentioned the necessity to eliminate excess infrastructure as the Army shrinks in size due to the reduction in endstrength. He pointed out that sequestration will speed up the pace of getting smaller, meaning more infrastructure will be excess sooner.

Witnesses included:

• John Conger, Acting Deputy Undersecretary for Installations and Environment, Department of Defense (DOD)

• Ms Kathleen Ferguson, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, Installations, Environment, and Logistics, DOD

• The Honorable Katherine Hammack, Assistant Secretary of the Army (Installations, Energy and the Environment), DOD

• Roger Natsuhara, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Energy, Installations, and Environment, DOD

Chairman Rob Wittman (VA) spoke against allowing budget decisions to drive strategic decisions. Decreasing the force should not be driven by things such as sequestration. In addition, he claimed the lower number of uniformed personnel is almost completely offset by an increase in the number of civilian personnel in DOD and he questioned where the excess infrastructure could be. The Army and Marine Corps used temporary infrastructure to care for the increased troop sizes in recent years and that temporary infrastructure should be eliminated before eliminating permanent infrastructure. At the same time, he said he can be convinced to change his opinions if the military services and DOD present him with appropriate information.

Ranking Member Madeleine Bordallo (GU) echoed Wittman’s concerns that savings are not readily experienced in a round of BRAC. She said savings from the most recent round of BRAC has yet to be seen. In fact, it cost more than expected. She wants assurances that better data would underlie future savings predictions from any additional rounds of base closures. She also questioned how DOD can know exactly how much infrastructure needs to be reduced if they have not yet reached final conclusions on what their force sizes will be. She suggested looking more closely at the overseas basing structure to find desired savings, rather than just focusing on domestic infrastructure.

Mr. Conger said he has limited authority to talk about any intent to ask for another round of BRAC. He is constrained by the Administration’s decision making process in creating the fiscal year (FY) 2014 budget. DOD is facing a lot of bills and restricted funding. Bases are very important for housing and training the force. However, infrastructure cannot be allowed to drain resources from other parts of the force if that infrastructure is not needed. Thanks to the five rounds of BRAC so far, the military has $12 billion in savings each year to put elsewhere in the budget. There is no specific BRAC request to be made today. No legislative authority is required for overseas basing. In January, then-Secretary Panetta started a process for determining what bases in Europe can be closed and merged to reduce the footprint there. He asked for Congressional support for that ongoing process.

Ms Hammack said the Budget Control Act reduced the size of the Army’s current and future budgets. At the same time, the Army is decreasing its end strengths. These reductions will affect every installation. Sequestration may drive the active duty end strength below 490,000. The Army has not been this small since the 1940s. The Army has extended the comment period on its review concerning 21 installations. This review examines infrastructure needs on a number of levels. The Army has not taken steps towards formal identification of excess infrastructure. Due to force reduction, the Army will be eliminating at least 8 brigade combat teams (BCTs) and possibly more, with two of those in Europe. Eliminating the other six in the U.S. means hundreds of thousands of square feet of infrastructure will no longer be needed. There will also be significant declines in base operations funding needed and civilian support staff. In the 2005 round of base closings, the Army worked to align its base structure with its operational missions. It beefed up wartime needs and moved troops home from overseas. Under those goals, BRAC was a success for both active duty and reserve component units. The continuing resolution underfunds the Operations and Maintenance accounts by $6 billion. This affects every post and station. Compounding these problems is the increased costs of operations in Afghanistan as materiel is brought home.

Mr. Natsuhara told about overseas basing the Navy has closed in the last three years. On the domestic side, BRAC allows the opportunity to assess how to best structure their base operations to meet operational needs. Ms Ferguson said the Air Force continually assesses the best way to maintain and operate its infrastructure. They have not performed an official infrastructure analysis. However, since the 2005 BRAC, the size of the Air Force has decreased. Intuitively, it makes sense they have some excess infrastructure.

Chairman Wittman asked if the Secretary of Defense has undertaken an assessment for determining excess infrastructure. Conger replied such an assessment is part of the BRAC process, so the DOD has not yet done this. At some level, they are always looking for ways to consolidate "within the rules," but they cannot do large scale activity without specific authority. The empirical authority supporting the existence of excess infrastructure derives from considering things such as force reductions.

Bordallo asked how to ensure that cost estimates for closing bases do not increase as the process goes on. Conger replied that costs increased in only some of the base actions in the last round, for specific reasons. Congress proclaimed that hospitals had to be "world class," which increased the cost of building them. Changes in other military construction projects resulted in similar cost increases.

As for not knowing the future size and shape of the force structure, Conger explained that part of the BRAC process requires the Joint Chiefs of Staff to produce a 20-year force structure plan. Hammack explained that, in Europe, the Army is changing infrastructure requirements as they close the two BCTs. They are looking for the authority to do something similar in the US, as another six BCTs are eliminated.

Bordello asked about the progress of environmental cleanup of previously closed bases. Natsuhara said the Navy still has 26 installations, or partial installations, to clean up, and they do have funding for this. Conger said the earlier rounds of BRAC had bigger cleanup burdens. However, since then, DOD has taken steps to clean up currently used bases. In 2005, fewer sites required cleanup than had occurred in previous rounds; thus, any future rounds are less likely to have long-lasting, expensive cleanup burdens attached to them.

Rep. Austin Scott (GA) asked for a list of where the excess capacity is. Conger said he does not have such a list. However, DOD knows that its force is smaller and other operations have changed, so there must be excess capacity out there. Scott challenged Conger that, if the uniformed services are going to be decreased by 20%, then the number of people in the Pentagon should also be decreased by that percentage. Scott also contended that the Pentagon requires the bases to take actions that result in having to use more expensive fuel and other kinds of energy than they need to. He suggested that money could be saved if the attempt to "go green" was not imposed. Conger said the bases must show a business case for pursuing alternative energy. Scott said BRAC will result in additional spending for the first few years, and the country just cannot afford that.

Rep. Joe Courtney (CT) agreed with Scott that another round of BRAC cannot be supported in the current budget environment. Conger replied, "You have to spend money to make money." Everyone has to prioritize where resources will be directed. He stressed he is not making a formal request for another round of BRAC at this time.

Rep. Randy Forbes (VA) said General Odierno originally testified that the force reductions were in line with the new military strategy, not for budget reasons. Hammack agreed there was a strategic realignment resulting from the withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is expected now that the budget will reduce and the need for infrastructure will shrink.

Rep. Dave Loebsack (IA) was concerned over reports the Administration’s budget will include a request for two more rounds of base closings. Overseas infrastructure should be examined before domestic. Loebsack asked Hammack about the Army’s industrial base. She said one aspect of improving technology means that, often, capabilities can be merged into a smaller footprint. While this means improved efficiency of operations, it also means excess capacity can be closed.

Rep. Kristi Noem (SD) received an answer from the witnesses that no official request for a BRAC round has been made. Thus, none of the military services have taken steps to identify specific bases to close, nor even know the exact number of bases that are excess.

Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (NH) quoted testimony from a year ago where the armed services said the infrastructure footprint is about right. She questioned what has changed since then. Hammack said the testimony quoted is correct in that a "big Army installation" would be unlikely to close. It would be smaller pieces of infrastructure that would be found to be in excess. The fact is, in the absence of a formal BRAC process, the Army has not done any formal military analysis to identify specifics.

Rep. Steven Palazzo (MS) brought up the importance of auditable financial statements. Not only does DOD need this to operate efficiently, but Congress needs them to perform their oversight responsibilities. Conger promised DOD is committed to making the 2017 deadline.

In closing the hearing, Chairman Wittman said he heard nothing today to convince him there is a need for a round of base closings at this time nor is there money to support it. He remains opposed. Ranking Member Bordello agreed with him.

Legion Testifies for VA to Relax Small Business Rules

On March 19, Davy Leghorn, assistant director of The American Legion’s Economic Division, was among those testifying before a joint session of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee and the House Small Business Contracting & Workforce Subcommittee. In his testimony Leghorn called for changes in what our organization considers a small business-killing practice by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). At issue is the VA’s lengthy and complex process by which it verifies the eligibility of a veteran-owned small business (VOSB) or service-disabled veteran-owned small business (SDVOSB) to be awarded government work contracts.

Leghorn began his remarks with an anecdote illustrating the pitfalls of the current system. "A few months ago, 20 full-time employees were laid off in Wisconsin when a service-disabled veteran-owned construction firm lost $1.7 million worth of work and the ability to bid on future contracts," he said. "This was due to VA’s lengthy verification process. This is a real shame because the whole point of VA verification is to make these businesses eligible to compete for VA contracts.

"The bottom line is that many veterans find this process to be overly burdensome, distracting and not worth the effort. The American Legion wants these businesses to be successful, not hamstrung…" This is why The American Legion passed Resolution 108, ‘Support Verification Improvements for Veterans’ Businesses within the Department of Veterans Affairs’" at last year’s National Convention.

Leghorn assured the congressmen that the Legion appreciates the need for verification and supports the practice to assure the government that it is contracting with legitimate, properly run veteran-owned and operated businesses. "The American Legion has been involved with VA verification since the program’s inception," Leghorn said. "We participate in VA’s Verification Assistance Counseling Program, (but) all too often we see businesses lose vital contracting opportunities due to the lengthy verification process. In some cases, businesses lose previously awarded contracts, resulting in layoffs and furloughs of their employees. The American Legion cannot stress enough how detrimental the current process can be to these veterans whose lives and family incomes are tied to their small businesses.

He continued, "The main challenge with the verification program seems to us to be VA’s inability to strike the appropriate balance between the requisite government oversight to protect the integrity of the program and the impact and cost to veteran small businesses."

In his Legion prepared testimony, Leghorn characterized the VA’s current rules regarding "unconditional" veteran ownership and control requirements as "overzealous and unrealistic." He advised a relaxation of the overly complex rules without compromising the necessary integrity of the verification process. Leghorn intimated that understanding and applying the rules as currently enforced by VA requires legal and business practice knowledge that’s not readily or affordably available to many veteran-owned small businesses, especially startups and those with small corporate structures that do not include legal counsels. Failure to relax the rules or make them more "user friendly," in the Legion’s view, will continue to discourage veteran-owned small business startups from entering the government contract arena, threaten the fiscal health of other businesses as they seek expensive legal assistance and/or spend inordinate amounts of time navigating the verification process, and favor larger businesses at the expense of smaller entities. According to Leghorn, these consequences harm not only the veteran-owned small businesses, but also the government as it searches for the best providers for a particular need.

When interviewed prior to his subcommittee testimony, Leghorn outlined specific steps the Legion believes VA can take to streamline the verification process. These include, "Better training of examiners to review cases based upon a totality of circumstances and not to solely look for single points of failures," Leghorn said, as well as giving applicants "the benefit of a doubt" if less than serious deficiencies exist in the application. Leghorn also suggested that the strict VA interpretations of veteran ownership and control should be modified.

"[VA’s] definition of ‘managing day to day operations’ should not be interpreted as hands on involvement of operational tasks. It could include investment strategies, managing staff and determining which contracts to pursue," he said. "These things could also demonstrate ownership and control. Further, a veteran’s maintenance of a business partner or employee(s) with more experience or certifications than he or she should not be interpreted as giving up control of the business. Some veteran-owned businesses have been denied verification because of this.

"The American Legion will continue to work with the SBA (Small Business Administration) and VA to improve the verification process and provide counseling services to our veteran entrepreneurs. The VA verification program is still in its relative infancy; this is the time to make the necessary changes."

VA is aware of the problems posed by its current business verification process. The agency announced recently that it is speeding up eligibility determinations of veteran-owned small businesses for its "Veterans First" contracts by allowing applicants to correct minor deficiencies on their paperwork before an initial denial is issued. This new policy begins May 1.

For several years now, the Legion has maintained a Small Business Task Force as an active advocate on behalf of veteran-owned small businesses on Capitol Hill and offers free training sessions to veteran business owners and would-be owners wishing to do business with the U.S. government

House Appropriations Subcommittee Holds Military Quality-of-Life Hearing

On March 19, 2013 the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Department of Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies held its annual oversight hearing on military quality of life.

Witnesses

• Sergeant Major Raymond F. Chandler, III, Sergeant Major of the Army

• Sergeant Major Michael P. Barrett, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps

• Chief Master Sergeant James A. Cody, Sergeant of the Air Force

(Master Chief Petty Officer Michael D. Stevens, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, was too ill to attend the hearing, but submitted testimony. According to the Chairman he intends to meet individually with the Members to discuss relevant issues.)

Subcommittee Chairman John Culberson (TX) stressed the importance of ensuring the men and women in uniform focus on their mission and not on whether they have the equipment they need.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Sanford Bishop (GA) noted today is the tenth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. He praised those who have served, and asked for a moment of silence in memory of those who have lost their lives. After observing the moment of silence, he said today’s witnesses can best speak for service men and women. He said it is important Congress make sure those in uniform and their families have what they need. He asked the witnesses to tell what is being done right, and what still needs improvement. He noted sequestration has gone into effect; it was intended to force Republicans and Democrats to work together and obviously, that didn’t work. He asked how furloughs and other impacts will affect things such as morale and recruitment.

Full Committee Ranking Member Nita Lowey (NY) stressed the importance of upholding transition assistance programs for those who have served. She stressed the need to continue fully funding mental health programs, given the prevalence of depression, PTSD, and TBI among service members. She further stated this is why Congress needs to avoid full implementation of sequestration over the next decade. She asked the witnesses to work with the committee on issues that impact things such as the VA claims backlog.

Sergeant Major Chandler thanked the committee for all they have done to support soldiers and their families. He said the Army has proven itself in every engagement, and shown the toughness that defines the word "soldier." The Army met the operating conditions set forth by General Odierno. The Army is in transition, but its mission to fight and win the nation’s wars has not changed. They are the best manned, equipped, trained, and led Army in the world. However, the current budget environment is putting that at risk. Today’s environment is challenging and unprecedented. Fiscal uncertainties do not allow them to plan, fight, and win. He asked for support for the continued modernization of the Army, both in equipment and facilities. In closing, he reminded the Members of those Soldiers who have given their lives over the last ten years; been wounded; and received awards in combat.

Sergeant Major Barrett said the fiscal uncertainties in the CR cause risks to Marines and their families. These uncertainties impact their quality of life programs. They rely upon these programs to be able to protect the nation to be able to respond to a myriad of emergencies and missions. He thanked Congress for its continued support.

Chief Master Sergeant Cody talked about the importance of investing in the education and training of airmen as it is crucial to enabling them to respond to the missions assigned to them. Caring for airmen and their families is part of taking care of the "engine" that drives the Air Force. The impact of a decade of war and the drawdown in force is having an impact, with increases in domestic violence, suicide rates, sexual assaults, and other problems. Maintaining a balance between work and family life is crucial to Air Force families. The Air Force will respect airmen’s downtime by eliminating unnecessary tasks and relying upon technology whenever possible. airmen are concerned about the impacts of sequestration and the budget.

Chairman Culberson started by asking each witness’ for his top three quality of life concerns. Chandler said each program impacts people in different ways and this is a hard question to answer. The Army really needs the budget to be passed to obtain the spending agility and flexibility it needs.

Barrett followed the Army saying each program affects each Marine differently. When he talks to the troops, he is asked how the budget will affect the force’s readiness, and how family programs will be impacted.

Cody agreed with the other two. He, too, is asked by airmen how the fiscal situation will impact the warfighters and the families’ support programs.

Culberson asked how many service members are still living in inadequate housing. The witnesses said privatization has worked well. With regard to repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell," the facility manager of each barrack or dorm will take sexual orientation into account as part of the current process of assigning rooms. Chandler explained there are a number of things already taken into account when assigning rooms – gender, smoking, etc. This will be one more. On top of that, soldiers are expected to behave appropriately.

Representative Bishop asked about possible disruptions due to civilian furloughs, including DOD schools. Chandler said there will absolutely be disruptions. He described his experience in obtaining care for a mild TBI. Some of the therapists in his clinic have left, looking for more reliable employment. As reliability decreases, so will quality of life. If a day care center is closed, a dual military family will have a problem. Leadership will probably allow a parent to take off a day to care for the child, which means loss of productivity. Barrett agreed that anything that affects civilian employees has a direct impact on uniformed personnel. He gave the example of caregivers of children with behavioral problems or those who care for children with exceptional needs: if they are furloughed, children do not receive care. Cody said civilian furloughs will impact every single man and woman in the Air Force.

Bishop mentioned the high number of military spouses who are employed by the federal government. These families will see a reduction in their income due to furloughs. Chandler added that it is hard to know how many are employed by contractors, but somewhere around 40,000 are employed by the federal government. Barrett said there are 93,000 married Marines, but did not know how many have a federally employed spouse. He will find out for the record, as will Cody.

Rep John Carter (TX) is in favor of passing the CR with the appropriations bill to give DOD additional flexibility. "Everyone" thought sequester was a bad idea. Chandler agreed flexibility is needed. However, what the Army really needs is a real budget. If nothing else, flexibility would allow them to identify their priority list and move the money around to maintain readiness. Bartlett said "allowing us to move money among the programs is all we’ve ever wanted." Cody agreed the appropriations bill is really needed.

Rep. Sam Farr (CA) said Congress "has let the nation down" by allowing sequestration to go into effect. There are ways to balance budgets and this was the "wrong decision." He asked what can be done to mitigate suicide, especially by taking firearms from personnel who are at risk. Bartlett talked about Force Preservation Officers who help commanders identify who is at risk, and put measures in place to prevent something bad from happening. Engaged leadership is at the forefront of addressing these problems, which go beyond suicide to include violence, drug use, criminal mischief, sexual misconduct, etc. Chandler talked about the Army’s difficult ability to require an at-risk soldier to check the weapon and to move onto base if they live off base. He wants these folks on base as this allows the Army to provide more intense supervision and counseling. Cody said the Air Force has a similar program in place. Farr is troubled that 61 percent of the deaths are caused by personal weapons, and asked whether counseling is given to these individuals. Bartlett assured him counseling is provided to everyone for a wide variety of issues. The Defense Language Institute is located in his district and when asked, Bartlett talked about the language capability being developed by the Marines at the unit level. They are in the 13th month of a 27-month beta test in this partnership program.

Rep. Alan Nunnelee (MS) asked what the Services did to plan for the implementation of sequestration. Chandler replied that, if cuts needed to occur, the Services should have the flexibility to determine where to make them, rather than have them made across-the-board. The inflexibility of the cuts has "really tied our hands." Leading up to implementation, he saw people make the best assumptions possible with the information they had. The result is the Army is "struggling," with both readiness and quality of life negatively impacted. The longer it goes on, the longer it will take to recover. Bartlett said Chandler is "absolutely right." The Marine Corps would like to set its own priorities. Without that ability, they face the possibility of becoming a hollow force. Cody said he thinks the original plan for sequestration was for it not to happen, because it would be so bad. There were instructions not to take actions to prepare for sequestration, because a budget had been submitted. Eventually, they were told to plan for it. "There are things that will take place in the Air Force that we will not recover from because of sequestration."

For the Record, Nunnelee asked the witnesses to tell him what is being done to ensure service members and their families continue to have access to high quality health care. The hearing ended earlier than it might have been due to votes on the House floor.

Senate Veterans’ Committee Hearing on VA Mental Health Care

On Wednesday, March 20, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing aimed at examining the current state of veteran mental health care in the Veteran Health Administration. The witnesses, arranged in two panels, included:

PANEL I

Jacob Wood, President and Co-Founder, Team Rubicon; Andre Wing, Team Leader, Vermont Veterans Outreach Program; Kim Ruocco, Director, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors; Kenny Allred, LTC, USA (Ret.), Chair, Veterans and Military Council chair, National Alliance on Mental Illness; and Barbara Van Dahlen, PhD, Founder & President, Give an Hour.

PANEL II

Robert Petzel, MD, Under Secretary for Health, Veterans Health Administration, VA

Accompanied By: Janet Kemp, RN, PhD, Director of Suicide Prevention and Community Engagement, National Mental Health Program, Office of Patient Care Services; Sonja Batten, PhD, Deputy Chief Consultant, Specialty Mental Health Program, Office of Patient Care Services; William Busby, PhD, Acting Director, Readjustment Counseling Service and Regional Manager for Northwest Region; and COL Rebecca Porter, Chief, Behavioral Health Division, Office of the Surgeon General, U.S. Army

Senator Bernie Sanders (VT), Chairman of the committee, opened the hearing by highlighting the issues facing VA in terms of mental health, including failure to meet benchmarks in scheduling appointments, hiring adequate staff of mental health professionals, and access to care.

He then turned it over to Sen. Richard Burr (NC), Ranking Member of the committee for his comments. Sen. Burr stated that VA needs to look "outside the box" for solutions, including looking to partner with charitable organizations and the private sector. "These problems cannot be solved with one or two changes. We need a comprehensive overhaul to fix these problems." He also stated that the focus has been on peripheral issues, such as hiring, while failing to address the source of the problems. Sen. John Tester (MT) noted that he was glad these issues are being addressed, after having been ignored for decades. He stated that he thought we can get more done if we work with people, rather than simply calling for resignations.

The first panel consisted of individuals who have either created or work for organizations which focus on the issues of veteran mental health. The importance of community and purpose after the military was emphasized time and time again. Jacob Wood, a Marine Corps veteran and founder of Team Rubicon, a non-profit organization which "uses the skill and experiences of returning combat veterans for continued service following natural disasters…combat medics treat young children; combat engineers build refugee camps; and squad leaders bring order to ravaged communities."

The second panel consisted of representatives of VA and the U.S. Army’s Office of the Surgeon General.

Dr. Petzel, testifying on behalf of VA emphasized the various efforts the VA has made, and continues to make in stemming the tide of veteran mental health issues and suicide, including a "continuum of recovery-oriented, patient-centered services across outpatient, residential, and inpatient settings." He also noted that VA has integrated "complementary and alternative medicine for treating mental health problems." He laid out the steps VA has taken to address veteran suicide, including placing Suicide Prevention Teams at each facility, and operating a Veteran Crisis Hotline, where veterans can call if they are in dire need. He also noted that on February 1, 2013, VA released a comprehensive report on veteran suicide, which was the result of the most comprehensive review of veteran suicide rates ever taken by the VA, which means, he stated, that "VA is now better able to assess the effectiveness of its suicide prevention programs and identify specific populations that need targeted interventions." Additionally, he addressed the issues of access and hiring, which he noted are both poised for improvement with the roll out of certain IT solutions, as well as an expedited hiring process. Finally, he noted that "VA is reengineering its performance measurement methodologies to evaluate and revamp its programs." He concluded by stating "we know our work to improve the delivery of mental health care to veterans will never be truly finished. However, we are confident that we are building a more accessible system that will be responsive to the needs of our veterans…"

Col. Porter outlined some of the initiatives the Army is taking in order to implement preventative measures aimed at ensuring that soldiers experience a minimal amount of mental health issues once they become veterans, as well as ensuring that solders have access to mental health services while on active duty. These initiatives include increased resilience training, and something called the Embedded Behavioral Health program, which "[p]rovides multidisciplinary behavioral health teams to provide community behavioral healthcare to Soldiers in close proximity to their units and in coordination with their unit leaders." She also noted that programs are coming online which focus on caring for spouses and children, as well as IT solutions aimed at tracking patient outcomes, satisfaction and risk factors.

House VA Panel Reviews VA’s Plans to Improve Disability Claims Processing

On Wednesday, March 20, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing on the Department of Veterans Affairs’ plans for employee training, accountability, and workload management to improve disability claims process. Chairman Jeff Miller (FL) kept VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey on the defensive for most of the hearing, challenging the VA for answers about efforts to transform the benefits claims procedures in light of record backlogs. Despite VA Secretary Shinseki’s admirable goal in 2010 of breaking the back of the backlog by 2015, VA has continued to regress. The number of claims in inventory has more than doubled to over 900,000 in three years, and the number of claims delinquent in excess of 125 days has gone to nearly 70 percent of their total claims, from only 36 percent when the goal was set forth.

Ranking Member Mike Michaud (ME) wanted VA to reassure him that the current plan would be successful, yet conceded, "…in my mind the math doesn’t add up and I’m not sure we’re going to get there by 2015." The grilling of Undersecretary Hickey, accompanied by Deputy Undersecretary for Field Operations Diana Rubens, was bipartisan, with lawmakers on both sides – from Rep. Tim Huelskamp (KS) to Rep. Dina Titus (NV) – archly critical of VA’s lack of results in addressing backlog concerns. Rep. Titus, the Ranking Member of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, was particularly critical of VA’s lack of results in her home state of Nevada where she noted the average time for claims completion has "soared to over 500 days."

Undersecretary Hickey addressed concerns about lack of progress by claiming the Agent Orange claims took up a lot of resources and noted that current claims have more issues than the traditional 2-3 issues they were used to getting on claims. Chairman Miller defused the usual VA excuses for the backlog, countering Hickey’s statement by saying the same claim was first made by VA back in 1994. He also cited earlier testimony from VA in advance of adding three new presumptive conditions associated with Agent Orange where VA had claimed the additional Agent Orange claims would "not impact their ability to make progress on the backlog."

Unusually, the House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was seated and by unanimous consent of the committee permitted to question General Hickey. McCarthy commented on the unusual nature of his presence on the committee, but stated he was becoming "frustrated with what we’re seeing from the government audits [of VA]" He point blank asked General Hickey if she considered VA’s results acceptable, to which she answered no. He asked if productivity had gone up in VA or down. Hickey responded overall production has gone up. McCarthy countered by noting a massive influx in personnel, and showed statistics indicating the number of claims worked per year by VA employees had dropped by nearly half. Hickey countered by stating the slowdown in production enabled them to work the claims more accurately, but the accuracy statistics have remained relatively stable, improving by a percentage point or two at best.

Several lawmakers lamented an apparent lack of consequences for VA. Despite many years of promises on the claims backlog issue, VA struggled to provide details about how employees had been held accountable for failure. While Hickey admitted "some" employees who failed to adhere to a performance improvement plan had likely parted ways with VA, she could not produce any numbers related to whether or not VA had fired anyone for lack of performance. The hearing was certainly contentious, yet never devolved into some of the Congressional/VA shouting matches of previous committees, such as clashes between previous chairmen Steve Buyer or Bob Filner whose aggressive grilling of Hickey last year grew so heated Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN) had to intervene.

LEGISLATIVE DIVISION ACTIONS

Letters of Support

The American Legion on March 19 sent letters of support to Sen. Kay Hagan (NC) and James Inhofe (OK) and Rep. Ted Poe (TX), giving our organization’s support for their draft legislation that restricts foreign assistance to Pakistan until DOD’s tuition assistance program is fully funded. Maintaining a professionally educated military is a critical component to ensuring that this country is well defended, and that our nation receives transitioning veterans that strengthen our economy rather than add to the ranks of the unemployed.

On March 20 The American Legion sent a letter of support to Rep. Joe Heck (NV), giving our organization’s support for H.R. 258, legislation entitled the Stolen Valor Act of 2013. This measure would amend title 18, United States Code, with respect to fraudulent representations about having received military decorations or medals. [Resolution 283-2012]

The American Legion on March 20 also sent letters of support to Sens. Barbara Mikulski (MD) and Thad Cochran (MS) – the chairwoman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee – and Rep. Bill Young (FL) and Pete Visclosky (OR) – the chairman and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee – giving our organization’s support for continued direct funding in fiscal year (FY) 2014 for the Peer Reviewed Vision Trauma Program (PRMR-Vision), requesting minimum funding of $10 million. This program provides research for veterans who suffered from serious penetrating eye wounds and other eye trauma and Traumatic Brain Injury-related visual dysfunction.[Res. 285-2012]

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, 46 Departments have returned their Council nomination forms. As of March 22, the following Departments have not returned their nomination sheets: California, Connecticut, New York, and Ohio.

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]

 

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