Dateline: Capitol Hill

On July 9, the House of Representatives voted on legislation to benefit veterans and their families, as well as veteran jobseekers. Both bills now go to the Senate for further action.

The first measure passed was H.R. 4114, which the House agreed to by a voice vote. This bill, the "Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2012," would increase, effective Dec. 1, the rates of compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities and the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation for the survivors of certain disabled veterans. It is a companion measure to S. 2259, which is still awaiting action by the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.

The second measure was H.R. 4155, the "Veteran Skills to Jobs Act." The bill was approved by a recorded vote of 369-0. This bill would direct the head of each federal department and agency to treat relevant military training as sufficient to satisfy training or certification requirements for federal licenses. During the bill’s consideration on the House floor, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., – the sponsor of H.R. 4155 – stated, "If you’ve had the best training in the world, you ought to be able to get the best jobs in the world, and this body ought to make sure that certification, that licensure is a seamless process. If you leave active duty today, you ought to have work tomorrow in the private sector utilizing that very same training."

This bill mirrors a Senate measure, S. 2239, which passed that chamber on June 29 by unanimous consent.

Appropriations panels pass Selective Service measures

On June 14, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved S. 3301, legislation to fund the Financial Services and General Government operations for the next fiscal year. The vote was 16-14. Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee passed H.R. 6020, a companion to the Senate measure, on June 20 by a voice vote.

These bills provide funding for the Treasury Department, the office of the president, the judiciary, the District of Columbia and various independent federal agencies. In the latter category is the Selective Service System, whose mission is to be prepared to supply manpower to the armed forces adequate to ensure the security of the United States during a time of national emergency. Since 1973, the armed forces have relied on volunteers to fill manpower requirements, but Selective Service registration was reinstituted in July 1980.

Under the provisions of S. 3301, the Selective Service System would be funded at $24.4 million, an increase of more than $400 million from the current year and equal to the president’s budget proposal. By contrast, H.R. 6020 would fund this agency at $12.2 million, half of the budget recommendation. This figure, along with others, will be the focus of reconciliation when the bills are passed by their respective chambers.

The American Legion is a longtime supporter of the work of the Selective Service.

House committee examines VA claims system

On June 19, the full House Committee on Veterans Affairs conducted a marathon five-hour hearing on the topic of VA’s efforts to tame the backlog in the claims system through programs and initiatives. In the summer of 2010, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said, "This is the year we break the back of the backlog," while vowing to achieve 98-percent accuracy, and have no claim pending longer than 125 days, by 2015. To this end, VA has embarked on a wide variety of programs to help improve operations, the most notable being the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), VA’s "paperless electronic office environment of the future." The efficacy of the wealth of VA programs was put under the microscope of the committee’s scrutiny.

The hearing was quite spirited, and even blistering at times, as Ranking Member Bob Filner, D-Calif., launched into attacks on nearly every panelist, from veterans groups to government officials, for not doing enough to end the backlog. He ultimately pitched his own proposal, an IRS-like system which would grant all claims automatically for veterans, subject to random audits. Filner’s sometimes relentless questioning even drew criticism from Rep. Tim Walz, DFL-Minn., for questioning the dedication of veterans groups to the veterans they serve and for his inexorable badgering of VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey, a retired Air Force brigadier general. Walz allowed Filner his passion for benefits but made the point to respect the panelist’s years of service to the country and to allow her to answer the questions he was asking before cutting her off and moving on to new questions.

The other members of the committee, though less confrontational, were no less concerned. The hearing drew a large attendance, with more than 16 committee members participating and questioning the panelists to get to the root of why, despite all of the efforts, the backlog continues to grow.

The Legion provided testimony through Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Deputy Director for Claims Richard Dumancas. Dumancas drew upon his own experiences as a service officer, as well as close coordination with the Legion’s network of more than 2,000 nationally accredited service officers, to point out some of the red flags popping up as VA tests these pilots and programs.

Despite continued input from VSOs like the Legion, VA computer systems – even the newest and most up-to-date – still struggle with recognition of power-of-attorney privilege, and service officers are locked out of access to critical data they need in order to work on veterans’ claims. The VBMS system, in its early pilot stages at only a handful of offices, is already subject to lengthy "work-arounds" for failure points.

If these errors are occurring in the limited pilots and causing delays, how badly will the system be affected when it is rolled out nationwide? Questions remain unanswered about the scanning of documents necessary to operate the electronic system. With solid, workable data a critical foundation for the electronic system, the Legion is concerned that not enough reliable and reassuring public plans for achieving the needed scanning goals are available.

There was a tremendous air of frustration from VSOs, as VA has been more open and communicative of late. The technological promise of what some of these systems can accomplish, if working as intended, could make a dent in the process, but the results just aren’t there.

Furthermore, the claims process is slipping backward. Since Shinseki’s vow, the number of claims pending more than 125 days has ballooned to more than 65 percent of VA’s entire caseload, up from the mid-30s when he made the promise. Accuracy is also not moving in a positive direction.

Legion testimony urged VA to not solely rely on technological tools to provide fixes but to radically alter the mindset and work to change the culture within VA. Failure is not an option, and this needs to be the driving force for accomplishing the goal.

House passes fiscal 2013 defense appropriations bill

On July 19, by a vote of 326-90, the House passed H.R. 5856, the fiscal 2013 spending bill for the Department of Defense. The bill totals $605.8 billion, which includes $87.7 billion in ongoing military operations in Afghanistan.

During floor debate, a number of amendments were adopted. They included four separate amendments – all approved by voice votes – that transferred funds from other DoD areas to be reassigned to certain areas in the Defense Health Programs. Specifically, the transferred funds include $15 million for spinal cord research; $10 million for Gulf War illness research, adopted by a voice vote; $10 million for traumatic brain injury and PTSD research and treatment; $10 million to increase suicide-prevention outreach; and $5 million for eye injury research. In health care, an amendment was introduced by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., to prohibit the implementation of an enrollment fee for the TRICARE for Life program. This amendment passed by a recorded vote of 399-17.

Other adopted amendments included the prohibition of funds relating to the reduction of this country’s nuclear forces. There was also an amendment prohibiting the use of funds to implement another round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC).

Some of the major funding proposals include:

  • $175.2 billion for Operations and Maintenance, which provides for operating and maintaining the armed forces;
  • $128.5 billion for Military Personnel, which includes pay and allowance, training, bonuses and incentive pays, and health and retirement benefits;
  • $102.5 billion for Procurement, allowing DoD to provide the troops with the best weapons and equipment possible; and
  • $70 billion for Research, Development, Testing and Evaluation, which aims to keep the armed forces as up-to-date and modernized as is feasible.

Some specific accounts funded include:

  • $15.2 billion to procure 11 Navy ships, including three DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, and advanced procurement for two SSN-774 Virginia-class attack submarines;
  • $5.2 billion for 29 F-35 Lightning II (formerly the Joint Strike Fighter) aircraft;
  • $3.6 billion for 12 E/A-18 Growlers electronic warfare aircraft and 37 F/A-18E/F Hornet carrier-based aircraft, including advance procurement for 15 additional Growlers;
  • $2.5 billion for 69 UH-70 Blackhawk and 42 MH-60S/R helicopters;
  • $2 billion for the National Guard and reserve equipment account;
  • $1.3 billion for chemical agents and munitions destruction;
  • $1.1 billion for DoD’s drug interdiction and counterdrug activities;
  • $792 million to maintain and modernize three Navy cruisers slated for decommissioning; and
  • $519 million for the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which secures and dismantles weapons of mass destruction and their associated infrastructure in former Soviet states.