Dateline: Capitol Hill

On Sept. 13, the House of Representatives passed House Joint Resolution (H.J. Res.) 177 by a 329-91 recorded vote. This measure – usually referred to as a "continuing resolution (CR)" – will fund all fiscal 2013 operations of the federal government for six months – until March 27, 2013 – at the same level of funding as for fiscal 2012. The Senate is expected to vote on the legislation during the week of Sept. 17, with the president signing the measure shortly thereafter.

For the past several years, Congress has been unable to agree to passage of the traditional 12 appropriations bills which fund the operations of all of the U.S. government’s departments, agencies and programs. Some of this difficulty is political, while some is philosophical. This year’s excuse is the failure of last year’s so-called supercommittee to agree to spending-reduction targets. As a result, in January 2013 automatic spending cuts – called "sequestration" – will be implemented to begin to reduce federal spending virtually across the board.

Despite agreeing to fiscal 2013 funding levels that parallel the 2012 funding amounts, H.J. Res. 117 does include a 0.6 percent spending increase, amounting to an additional $8 billion in funding to meet various contingencies. Several provisions included in the CR would:

  • Allow DoD to acquire supplies in other countries for use in Afghanistan;
  • Fund overseas contingency operations at nearly $100 billion;
  • Allow additional funding for nuclear-weapons modernization efforts, to ensure the safety, security and reliability of the nation’s nuclear stockpile;
  • Allow flexibility for U.S. Customs and Border Protection to maintain current staffing levels;
  • Allow additional funding and flexibility to sustain Homeland Security cybersecurity efforts;
  • Allow additional funding for the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service for wildfire-suppression efforts;
  • Extend the current pay freeze for federal employees, including congressional representatives and senators;
  • Allow the launch schedule of new weather satellites to move forward, ensuring the continuation of critical weather information, especially in the event of weather-related natural disasters;
  • Require every federal agency to provide spending plans to Congress to ensure transparency and the proper use of taxpayer dollars; and
  • Allow additional funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs to meet an increase in the disability claims workload.

The House Appropriations Committee has passed all 12 of the necessary bills to fund the federal government, and seven have been approved by the full House, but none of these measures has seen the light of day in the Senate. Therefore, with Congress facing the possibility of no funding measures in place for the start of the next fiscal year – Oct. 1 – the leadership in both chambers agreed to the formulation of the CR. The gist of these actions is that Congress is handing off the difficult questions of funding and cost-cutting to the 113th Congress, which will convene on Jan. 3, 2013.

House easily passes revised Stolen Valor Act

Public Law 109-437, the "Stolen Valor Act of 2005," made it a crime to lie about military service and awards, but it was overturned three months ago by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of United States v. Alvarez. In response, a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers developed modified legislation – H.R. 1775 – to replace it. On Sept. 13, the House passed the bill by a vote of 410-3.

During a House Judiciary Committee markup session on Aug. 1, H.R. 1775 was heavily modified. Among the changes were:

  • Individuals who wear military medals or decorations that do not belong to them were exempt from penalties outlined in the bill. This was due to concerns raised in the Alvarez decision, in which the Supreme Court stated that simply wearing medals is considered free speech.
  • Additionally, language making it a crime to have specifically claimed service in a special operations unit or in a combat zone was dropped.
  • However, the new bill makes it a crime to claim that an individual was awarded a "Combat Badge" – defined as a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Combat Action Badge, Combat Medical Badge, Combat Action Ribbon or Combat Action Medal.
  • The new measure enforces penalties against individuals who, with the intent to obtain money, property or anything of value, fraudulently hold themselves out to be recipients of a military decoration or medal. The original text enforced penalties against those who "with the intent to obtain anything of value, knowingly makes a misrepresentation regarding his or her military service."
  • Under the bill, punishments against such individuals would include fines or imprisonment for no more than a year, or both. The previous version had higher crimes for claiming receipt of the Medal of Honor, as well as claiming special operations service and service in a combat zone. The new text makes punishment uniform.

The measure now goes to the Senate for passage, which is expected sometime prior to that body’s adjournment.

Subcommittee conducts hearing on memorial

The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands conducted a legislative hearing on Sept. 11 to examine two bills, H.R. 6364 and H.R. 4969. The American Legion took an interest in H.R. 6364, given that it relates to the establishment of a World War I centennial commission, which would:

  • Plan, develop, and execute programs, projects and activities to commemorate the centennial of World War I;
  • Encourage private organizations and state and local governments to organize and participate in activities commemorating the centennial of World War I;
  • Facilitate and coordinate activities throughout the United States relating to the centennial of World War I;
  • Serve as a clearinghouse for the collection and dissemination of information about events and plans for the centennial of World War I; and
  • Develop recommendations for Congress and the president for commemorating the centennial of World War I, and designate the World War I museum and monument in Kansas City, Mo., as a National World War I monument; as well as allow for the creation of a new monument on the National Mall in Washington, in the area of Constitution Gardens.

The bill specifies that the memorial would be no more than 1.5 acres and spending would be capped at $10 million, with no federal funds being obligated by the bill.

The first two of the three panels addressing this legislation have taken place. The first panel consisted of Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo.; and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas. The second panel consisted of Stephen Whitesell, regional director, National Capital Region of the National Park Service, Department of the Interior; Dr. Judy Scott Feldman, chairman and president, National Coalition to Save Our Mall; and Edwin L. Fountain, director, World War I Memorial Foundation.

Fountain noted that the United States is lagging far behind the efforts of allies France and Britain when it comes to marking the centennial of the war. Both countries have established centennial commissions to plan remembrance events. Feldman echoed Whitesell’s concerns, and suggested the creation of a National Mall planning commission to ensure better long-term planning of the mall. Both Fountain and Feldman supported the enhancement of Pershing Park on Pennsylvania Avenue as a more appropriate location than Constitution Gardens, and one in line with a standing congressional prohibition against new construction on the mall.

Whitesell testified that Constitution Gardens falls under that prohibition, and that making an exception would set a dangerous precedent.The Legion has been deeply involved in the process of finding a proper way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the "war to end all wars." It is hoped that Congress will find a solution that pleases all involved parties.