Congress returns to agenda full of military matters

Congress returns Nov. 13, to face a crowded agenda. Many items on the agenda are still controversial, and there are lengthy matters that remain as well – especially those bills already passed by the House but have not been acted upon in the Senate. Among the highest profile bills:

  • The Senate must approve a veterans cost-of-living adjustment. Press reports have indicated this is a completed action, but the COLA (currently set at 1.7 percent) must, under current law, be legislatively approved before veterans and survivors can receive it in their January VA benefits. The House passed the COLA bill by a vote of 309 to 0 (H.R. 4114) on July 9 and sent it to the Senate July 10, where it still awaits action.
  • The Senate must also direct its attention to avert sequestration, or defense spending faces a dramatic, automatic, across-the-board cut of $51 billion in fiscal 2013 and $500 billion over 10 years. The American Legion has lobbied both legislative bodies that such a steep reduction would cause severe, if not irreparable, harm and damage to our national security, and that some new spending decisions must be made to avert endangering the defense programs of our nation. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called the possibility of sequestration a "doomsday button."
  • The Stolen Valor Act is essentially complete and should be passed and sent to the president; otherwise, the legislation dies with the end of the 112th Congress and must be re-introduced for action on Jan. 3 with the swearing in of the 113th Congress.

Other pending legislation includes Senate Bill 3276, which extends authorities of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is set to expire at year’s end and is considered essential by U.S. intelligence officials.

House, Senate veterans’ committees will see changes:

With the 2012 congressional elections essentially finished, Congress will begin the process of filling vacancies and re-arranging committee assignments for the upcoming 113th Congress. The Veterans’ Affairs committees are no exception. Below is a brief look at the departures from each committee:

  • HOUSE COMMITTEE: The majority side of this panel suffered three losses: 12-term member Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida, who lost his re-nomination bid; first term Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle of New York, who was defeated in the general election; and, Rep. Bob Turner of New York, who lost his bid for New York’s U.S. Senate seat after his congressional district was redrawn. The minority side sustained slightly larger losses. The most prominent was Rep. Bob Filner of California – serving his 10th term in the House – who did not seek re-nomination. Other losses include eight-term Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, Rep. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Rep. Russ Carnahan of Missouri. Of those seven, Stearns, Turner and Reyes all served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam era.
  • SENATE COMMITTEE: The Senate panel lost Daniel Akaka of Hawaii to retirement, after serving 12 terms in the House (1977-1989), followed by four terms in the Senate (1989 to the present); Sen. James Webb of Virginia and Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who lost in the general election. All three of these men were veterans: Akaka of World War II, Webb of Vietnam and Brown in the Army National Guard – which included deployments during the Persian Gulf War.

In other news:

Community center set up for D.C. veterans: The Economic Division went on a site visit Nov. 6 to the Department of Veterans Affairs new Community Resource and Referral Center (CRRC) in Washington, D.C. The CRRC is the first of its kind in the D.C. area and will serve as a 24/7 hub to combat homelessness among veterans. It is one of 17 centers the Department of Veterans Affairs plans to locate across the nation. These facilities centralize federal and local partners to provide services to homeless and at-risk veterans.

Although not a shelter, the CRRC provides services to assist veterans and their family members. The building includes a Primary Care Clinic, a complete kitchen, laundry and shower facilities, a food pantry and a play room for children, as well as a host of other community services.

Job fair boosts Sandy recovery: Following the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, Bob Looby, Economic and Employment chairman for the Department of New Jersey, began spearheading an expedited building-trade specific job fair to hasten the recovery and rebuilding process. Looby developed the plan, and scheduled the event in one day. All partners from the Department of Labor, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve are on board and ready to proceed with a job fair at American Legion Post 129 in Toms River, New Jersey on Nov. 24.

Jobless rate: The U.S. unemployment rate is 7.9 percent (October 2012), while the rate for Iraq war veterans is 10 percent. The jobless rate for female veterans is 15.5 percent (down from last month’s 19.9 percent).

Help for low-income veterans: Supportive Services for Veterans Families (SSVF) is a new program that granted 151 groups awards ranging from $89,950 to $1 million in fiscal 2011. General information and resources for the program can be found at

The SSVF program’s purpose is to improve very low-income veteran families’ housing stability. Grant recipients, in the form of private non-profit organizations and consumer cooperatives, will provide eligible families with outreach, case management, and assistance in obtaining VA and other benefits. Such areas include health-care services, financial planning services, transportation services, legal assistance and child-care services.

SWS site visits: Senior field service representative Warren Goldstein and national task force member Patrick Rourke conducted a System Worth Saving site visit in Buffalo, N.Y. This week, the health policy unit will be conducting a System Worth Saving site visit in Togus, Maine, on Nov. 14. The staff conducting the site visit will be the System Worth Saving chairman, Ralph Bozella, deputy director of health care Jacob Gadd and national field service representative, Roscoe Butler.

POW/MIA Update

  • SOLDIER MISSING FROM KOREAN WAR IDENTIFIED: On Oct. 24, the remains of Army Cpl. Joseph W. Fontenot, 20, of Maurepas, La., were identified and returned to his family for burial with full military honors. Fontenot was to be buried Oct. 27 in Whitehall, La. In February 1951, Fontenot was assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division when he was captured by enemy forces near Saemal, South Korea. He reportedly died in June 1951 while in captivity at Camp 1 near Changsong, North Korea.
  • SOLDIER KIA DURING VIETNAM WAR IDENTIFIED: On Oct. 26, the remains of Army Maj. James L. Whited, 42, of Norman, Okla., were identified and returned to his family for burial with full military honors. Whited was to be buried Nov. 2, in his hometown. On Nov. 19, 1966, Whited was the co-pilot of an OV-1A Mohawk aircraft that crashed while conducting a daytime reconnaissance mission over Attapu Province, Laos.