Dateline Capitol Hill

On July 9, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed H.R. 4114, the "Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment [COLA] Act of 2012." The recorded vote for passage was 369-0. It now heads to the Senate for consideration and passage. If enacted, H.R. 4114 would increase the annual cost-of-living rate between 1.3 and 1.9 percent for veterans and would go into effect on Dec. 1.

The amount of the COLA is not currently known because it is based on the costs of goods and services determined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index; the calculation will not be finalized until October.

Press conference for revised Stolen Valor Act

The "Stolen Valor Act of 2005" (Public Law 109-437) made it a crime to lie about military service and awards, but the law recently was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. In response, the bipartisan "Stolen Valor Act of 2011" was introduced by Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., as H.R. 1775, and Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., introduced a companion bill, S. 1728.

These bills make a key change to the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 by punishing individuals who misrepresent their military service in order to profit. Based on the Supreme Court’s ruling, the legislation should be constitutional because it focuses on those who seek to benefit from their misrepresentations.

On July 10, Heck and Brown conducted a press conference – attended by American Legion Legislative Division staff – to call on Congress to pass the Stolen Valor Act of 2011. "The Supreme Court laid down a marker in its recent decision on Stolen Valor, but it also left the door open to valid congressional action," said Heck, a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves. "I believe that we must defend the valor of those who have served our country but also that we must protect the very liberties for which our service men and women sacrificed. The Stolen Valor Act of 2011 would achieve both objectives, and Congress should move quickly to pass this legislation."

"The recent Supreme Court ruling should give Congress a sense of urgency to protect the valor of the deserving few," said Brown, a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. "It is wrong and cowardly for people to make fraudulent statements in order to receive distinctions that they have not earned. We need to ensure that no one can benefit from making false claims and steal the true valor of the courageous service men and women who selflessly defend our freedom." Heck’s bill has 67 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, while Brown’s measure is co-sponsored by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Dean Heller, R-Nev.

Members of The American Legion family are asked to contact their House and Senate members and urge them to become co-sponsors of their chamber’s respective bills. If they are already co-sponsors, be sure to thank them.

VA panel marks up legislation for full House action

On July 11, American Legion Legislative Division staff attended the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs markup hearing in which three bills were advanced to the full House for consideration. All three bills – H.R. 4057, the "Improving Transparency of Education Opportunities for Veterans Act of 2012" as amended; H.R. 5747, the "Military Family Home Protection Act" as amended; and H.R. 5948, the "Veterans Fiduciary Reform Act of 2012" as amended – unanimously passed the full committee and were recommended to the floor. Included in these three pieces of legislation were 17 different legislative proposals.

H.R. 5948 seeks to prevent financially incompetent veterans from being cheated by fiduciaries appointed to help manage their money by:

  • Requiring background checks of future fiduciaries, including family members appointed to handle a veteran's finances. Existing fiduciaries would not automatically undergo a background check unless they were appointed as fiduciary for another veteran;
  • Allowing veterans to suggest a preferred fiduciary, increasing the chances for a family member or close friend to be named to the position;
  • Limiting payment to fiduciaries to 3 percent of the monthly benefits a veteran receives or $35, whichever is lower. The commission will not include any money received from back pay or retroactive benefits. The caps are intended to weed out anyone who has purely financial motives for handling finances, according to committee staff;
  • Allowing veterans or family members who believe a fiduciary is doing something wrong to appeal to the Department of Veterans Affairs to have hte person removed. A temporary fiduciary would be appointed while allegations are investigated;
  • Requiring that a fiduciary found to have misused any payment or benefit to a veteran would not just be fired, but would also lose the right to be appointed as fiduciary for any other veteran, and requiring VA, with the help of the Justice Department, to regroup misspent or stolen funds.

Amendments include a ban on the burial of sex offenders at Arlington National Cemetery, a requirement for the allowance of freedom of conscience in VA cemeteries, a requirement for disclosure of VA data breeches, an increase in VA employee accountability requirements, authorization of a cap on VA bonus payments and a resolution honoring the Patriot Guard Riders.

H.R. 5747 would accomplish several things. It would:

  • Eliminate a sunset provision on foreclosure protections for military families and ensure that foreclosure protections are extended to 12 months;
  • Ensure that servicemembers serving in contingency operations, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, would be protected from foreclosure regardless of when the home was purchased;
  • Extend foreclosure protections to the surviving spouses of servicemembers who are killed in the line of duty, as well as to veterans who are 100 percent disabled due to service-connected injuries at the time of discharge;
  • Prohibit discrimination against servicemembers and their families who are covered by these protections and double penalties to deter future violations.

Additional amendments include further improvements to refinancing rights for deployed servicemembers and increased USERRA/FMLA protections.

H.R. 4057 would direct the VA secretary to develop a comprehensive policy to improve outreach and transparency to veterans and members of the armed forces through the provision of information on institutions of higher learning. In developing the policy, it would require the secretary to conduct a market survey to determine the availability of a commercially available, off-the-shelf online tools that would allow veterans to determine whether they are academically ready to engage in postsecondary education and training opportunities, and provide a list of providers of such opportunities.

Amendments include a licensing/credentialing proposal for OIF/OEF veterans, a proposal which would require that housing provided to homeless veterans meet minimum levels of safety, and a proposal which would require a "burn pit registry" for returning veterans who have had exposure to toxic burn pits while deployed.

Certification/licensure bill signed into law

On July 23, President Obama signed into law P.L. 112-147, the "Veterans Skills to Jobs Act," legislation to benefit veteran jobseekers. The House of Representatives voted on the bill on July 9, approving it by a recorded vote of 369-0. The Senate unanimously approved the measure two days later.

This law directs 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, H.R. 4155’s sponsor – Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif. – 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."