Speaking at an Oct. 30 press conference in Washington, American Legion Legislative Director Lou Celli told a crowd gathered outside the Capitol that Congress needs to pass a bill that would guarantee the Department of Veterans Affairs an ability to pay veterans benefits on time, regardless of the political climate.
Members of Congress called the press conference to rally support for pending legislation that would guarantee advance appropriations for all of VA's discretionary programs. Yet even if that bill passes, it would not guarantee funding for the government's mandatory spending, which includes benefit payments to veterans.
Noting how important it was for the advance appropriations bill to be enacted, Celli said that one very important measure not included in the legislation is mandatory funding. "And I fear that we will be standing here a year from today with a very hollow victory, if we are able to give VA one hundred percent funding in advance appropriations for all discretionary programs, and leave out mandatory spending.
"How are we going to be able to stand in front of our veterans and claim victory if, a year from today, we're standing here telling them that - because of squabbles in Congress - we're not able to cut their compensation and pension checks?"
Celli said The American Legion strongly supports legislation for VA advance appropriations, "and we definitely want to see that mandatory spending is included in that measure."
The chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committees, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., also spoke at the event as a drizzling rain fell from Washington's gray skies.
Miller reminded the crowd that Congress had enjoyed great success in 2009 when it passed a bill to provide advance appropriations for VA's medical services. "Because of that, we were able to give some consistency to the Department of Veterans Affairs during the shutdown."
The rest of VA's budget needs such consistency, Miller said, because "Congress is getting increasingly unable to get its work done on time. We don't want veterans to be used as political pawns in the discussion. We need to all agree to take veterans and their earned benefits off the table when it comes to funding of benefits and earned dollars that they expect."
Sanders said that when it comes to defending the men and women who have put their lives on the line for America, "we are going to go above partisanship and we're going to work together in an effective and congenial way."
Because it threatened timely benefits payments, Sanders said the 16-day government shutdown "caused enormous anxiety within the veterans community and within the hearts of many of us in the House and the Senate.
"I want to thank the veterans and military service organizations I stand with today, who have time and time again, recognized a need, mobilized the veterans community, galvanized political support, and moves quickly to ensure the interests of veterans and their families are protected."
Sanders said that while he and other members of Congress strongly support advance appropriations for VA's discretionary funding, "we also want to move forward with mandatory funding as well. As we saw earlier this month, in the event of a prolonged shutdown, VA would not have been able to issue disability compensation, pension payments or educational benefits. That outcome would have been a disaster."
Had the government shutdown continued, funding for the Veterans Benefits Administration would have zeroed out sometime this month, leaving more than 5 million veterans without more than $6 billion in monthly benefits payments.
Many veterans, Sanders said, "depend on these benefits to feed themselves and take care of their basic needs. So I think that, as Congress, we have got to address this issue. We have got to tell veterans that they are not going to be hurt when we do not get our fiscal house in order."
The Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs plans to take up the advance funding bill (S. 932) in November. Sanders said he wants to work with his colleagues to amend it to include a guarantee for mandatory funding that pays veterans their disability, pension and education benefits.
The Senate version of the Putting Veterans Funding First Act of 2013 was introduced May 13 and sponsored by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.