The American Legion's legislative advocates and staff experts in Washington rarely have to worry about filling up their to-do lists. Throughout the year, they write scores of letters and position papers in support of veteran-friendly legislation and against bills that defy Legion resolutions. They draft press releases and are interviewed by print, broadcast and digital media in the nation's capital. They either stage or participate in national press conferences, testify in congressional hearings and exchange information with lawmakers and their staffs. A recent three-hour glimpse into the day-to-day activities of Legion staffers reveals how reaction to an unanticipated political event and a series of routine meetings on the Hill can turn into something more.
It is the afternoon of Feb. 26, and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., has just released his "Tax Reform Act of 2014 Discussion Draft." The document's name matches its intent: to get the ball rolling on the creation of comprehensive federal tax reform legislation.
The table of contents prefacing Camp's 194-page "let's discuss" piece is 11 pages long. Much of the text is baffling to anyone other than legislative experts, tax attorneys and accountants. But, one section under the heading "Reform of Business Credits" is straightforward and clearly alarms the Legion staffers. Recommended is a repeal of the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC - pronounced "WHAT-see" by Capitol Hill insiders), eliminating a tax break for employers who hired individuals from one or more targeted groups prior to 2014. Among those groups are military veterans.
Less than 24 hours after Camp's discussion draft appeared, the Legion's Davy Leghorn and Shaun Rieley were atop Capitol Hill meeting with members of the House Ways and Means Committee staff to protest the idea of killing the WOTC tax credit.
It is a peaceful, civil protest. Almost academic. There is no finger wagging or raised voices. This is really how it works behind the scenes in Washington. These particular meetings weren't prompted by Camp's proposal at all. The timing of his draft document's release and the Legion-led conversations about it was, as Rieley put it, "serendipitous."
The meetings between the Legion and Ways and Means Committee members had actually been arranged weeks earlier, long before the tax-reform proposal was even anticipated. Leghorn and Rieley had made the appointments to talk about something completely different -- H.R. 3395 and its identical Senate companionl, S. 1624, both called the "Vow to Hire Heroes Extension Act of 2013." The bills, introduced at the end of October by Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., were designed to prolong the provisions of the original American Legion-supported VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 that encouraged veteran employment.
The extension act has been of particular interest to The American Legion not only because of its purpose, but for its literal content. The common language of the House and Senate versions was crafted by Richard Jones, tax counsel for CBS Corp. in New York and a Paid Up for Life (PUFL) member of the Legion. A former Army Ranger, Jones frequently collaborates with the Legion's Veterans Employment & Education Division.
The Legion-commissioned, Jones-written extension act specifically calls for a continuation of the WOTC for veterans through Dec. 31, 2016.
At their first appointment, Leghorn and Rieley are joined by Ryan Gallucci of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The three veterans advocates listened intently as experts from the office of the House Ways and Means Committee's ranking minority member, Sander Levin, D-Mich., pore over the Legion bill and offer suggestions for improvement. The experts also advise Leghorn, Rieley and Gallucci to solicit additional veteran-friendly co-sponsors. The VSO reps make their case in favor of the Extension Act to pass along to committee members.
Next, Leghorn, Rieley and Gallucci visit the office of Rep. Erik Paulsen, a majority (Republican) member of the House Ways and Means Committee. There, they are met by a staff member who takes many notes as the VSO reps promote the extension bill, arguing strongly to keep the WOTC tax credit for veterans.
The final meeting of the afternoon is considered the most important by Leghorn, Rieley and Gallucci – a chat with a member of Camp's staff, who needs to clearly understand the Legion's disapproval of the WOTC repeal. By this time, Rich Jones, accompanied by CBS colleague and fellow former Ranger Joshua Brackett, arrives from New York. With a half hour to spare before appointment time, the quintet of veterans gather around a small, wobbly table in the Cannon House Office Building basement cafeteria. There, they discuss the presentation strategy, which will center on a rousing "we won't take no for an answer" plea from Jones.
At appointment time, the group climbs upstairs to the building's third floor and Camp's office. They meet the congressman's legislative assistant. Relegated to the hallway by a reported lack of meeting space, the group assembles, makes introductions and explains the Legion agenda.
"In light of Chairman Camp's proposal yesterday," Jones begins, "there are those who would say that championing the extension of a WOTC is a lost cause. However, nothing can be further from the truth. Why? This week, the DoD released their downsizing plan which drastically cuts troop strength, which will send millions of veterans into a slow-growth economy. On the heels of this, the House Ways and Means Committee responds by releasing a tax-reform proposal that wipes out the veterans' hiring tax credit mechanism? At a time when veterans need federal employment assistance the most, our government should make sure that every possible incentive for hiring veterans is in place."
Jones continues: "Removing the veteran hiring tax credit is not good fiscal or legislative policy and is certainly not a cost-saving measure. We believe (that) our bill extending the WOTC is a smarter approach. It will put veterans to work, make them contributing taxpayers and, most important of all, will help them and their families successfully reintegrate into the civilian economy."
A short discussion of bill specifics ensues. Everyone promises to "keep touching base" on the issue. As Camp's aide retires to her office, Jones, Brackett, Leghorn, Rieley and Gallucci step outside to reflect on what was certainly a productive afternoon on Capitol Hill. Jones and Brackett, travelling separately back to New York, say their good-byes and make for Reagan National Airport and Union Station, respectively, while the Legion and VFW advocates trek back toward their offices.
"It was a good afternoon," Leghorn assesses. "But we still have a lot of stuff to do."
So, what's next?
"We'd better get some more co-sponsors."
Thus, another day on the Hill – no two of which are alike -- is scheduled for Leghorn and Rieley, two American Legion staff members who fully understand that road to legislative success is rarely linear.