Dateline Capitol Hill

On Sept. 28, President Obama signed into law Public Law 112-175, the "Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013." This measure – usually referred to as a continuing resolution (CR) – will fund all the operations of the federal government for the first six months of fiscal 2013, until March 27, 2013, at the same level of funding as the current fiscal 2012 budget. The House of Representatives passed House Joint Resolution 177 on Sept. 13 by a 329-91 recorded vote. The Senate voted on Sept. 22 to agree to the legislation by a vote of 62-30.

For the past several years, Congress has been unable to pass the 12 appropriations bills that fund the operations of all 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 of next year, 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 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 the 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 Interior Department and the 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 – seven have been approved by the full House – but none of these measures have seen the light of day in the Senate. The gist of these actions is that Congress is postponing the difficult questions of funding and cost-cutting to the lame-duck session after the November elections or to the 113th Congress, which will begin on Jan. 3, 2013.

Senate VA panel marks up veterans legislation

On Sept. 12, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs conducted a business meeting in which it considered several pieces of legislation pending before the committee. Six pieces of legislation were considered, including:

S. 3340, introduced by committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., the Mental Health Access to Continued Care and Enhancement of Support Services (ACCESS) Act of 2012. This bill seeks to improve the provision of mental health care to members of the Armed Forces and veterans, to improve assistance to homeless veterans, to improve the provision of health care and benefits to veterans, and for other purposes.

S. 3322, introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, the Servicemembers’ Protection Act of 2012. This measure would strengthen enforcement and clarify certain provisions of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and chapter 43 of title 38, U.S. Code, and for other purposes.

S. 3313, also introduced by Murray, is the Women Veterans and Other Health Care Improvement Act of 2012. This legislation would amend Title 38, U.S. Code, to improve the reproductive assistance provided by VA to severely wounded veterans and their spouses, and for other purposes.

S. 2259, introduced by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is the Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2012. This bill would provide for an increase, effective Dec. 1, in 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, and for other purposes.

S. 2241, also introduced by Murray, is the GI Bill Consumer Awareness Act of 2012. This measure would ensure that veterans have the information and protections they require to make informed decisions regarding use of Post-9/11 Educational Assistance, and for other purposes.

S. 1707, introduced by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., is the Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act. This legislation would amend title 38, U.S. Code, to clarify the conditions under which certain persons may be treated as adjudicated mentally incompetent for certain purposes.

All bills were reported out of committee, but with some amendment. None of the measures have been scored by the Congressional Budget Office, but Murray said the necessary funding would be found before the bills are reported to the full Senate. It is hoped that these bills will be acted upon by the full Senate during the upcoming lame-duck session.

House hearing on DoD plans for sequestration

On Sept. 20, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), chaired by Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., conducted a hearing on "Department of Defense Plans for Sequestration: The Sequestration Transparency Act of 2012 Report and the Way Forward." In August Congress passed P.L. 112-155, the Sequestration Transparency Act, mandating the Obama administration lay out specifics about the $1.2 trillion in cuts to domestic and defense programs that will start to take place at the beginning of 2013 if Congress is unable to agree on another deficit-reduction plan before the end of the year. They were given 30 days to comply. The White House released the 394-page report on Sept. 14, but the large, numbers-heavy report provides little insight into what would happen within DoD to accommodate the required $50 to $55 billion cut in defense spending in each year over the next decade.

These reductions would come on top of the $487 billion over the next decade already imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011. The budget cuts were enacted by Congress last summer as part of a larger deficit-reduction plan, but were designed to be so unpalatable to both parties that they’d come up with alternative spending trims to avoid hurting the military. But no solution has been reached as of yet. Congress was unable to find a compromise before their anticipated adjournment this week, and lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to Washington until Nov. 13 for legislative work until after the November elections.

The hearing featured Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale and the service vice chiefs in what turned into a forum for committee members to air their grievances about the automatic cuts and assign blame – to the president, each other, even themselves – for the scheduled spending cuts. But lawmakers of both parties agreed the planned cuts to the Pentagon, were they to go into effect, would be devastating. Nevertheless, DoD still hasn’t started planning for them and this has infuriated congressional Republicans, "They only applied sequestration figures at the account level," a HASC staffer complained about the report, noting that "the language in the law said that we need to receive information at the program, project and activity level." DoD officials argued that 30 days was not enough time to produce this level of detail.

The difference is simple: Programs, projects and activities are specific things, like F-35 fighters and Stryker vehicles and destroyers. The funding for these items is aggregated, and therefore buried, in broader accounts, like Air Force aircraft procurement, Army wheeled and tracked combat vehicles, and Navy shipbuilding. Instead of providing the program-level data, the Office of Management and Budget provided the account-level data, which doesn’t tell you much about which programs would be affected or how. For example, the $34 billion defense health account faces a $3.3-billion reduction if sequestration happens. But how that $3.3-billion cut would be accommodated within that particular budget account is not specified.

Earlier this year, The American Legion passed Resolution 1 that opposes any further cuts to the country’s defense budget. It is anticipated that congressional leadership will focus on developing some alternative to the draconian sequestration process during the upcoming lame-duck session.

VA construction authorization measure signed into law

On Oct. 5, President Obama enacted Public Law 112-191, the VA Major Construction Authorization and Expiring Authorities Extension Act of 2012. The major provisions of this measure include:

  • Authorization for construction of a mental health building at the VA medical center (VAMC) in Seattle, with a price tag of $222 million;
  • Authorization for construction of a spinal cord injury center at the VAMC in Dallas in the amount of $155 million;
  • Authorization for renovation of the surgical suite and operating rooms at the VAMC in Miami, for an amount totaling $41 million.

Further, P.L. 112-191 provided a one-year extension of authority for VA to:

  • Operate a VA Regional Office in Manila, Republic of the Philippines;
  • Provide treatment, rehabilitation and certain other services for seriously mentally ill and homeless veterans;
  • Provide housing assistance for homeless veterans;
  • Continue VA's Advisory Committee on Homeless Veterans; and,
  • Continue the performance of medical disability examinations by contract physicians.