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Congressional Updates

The House of Representatives and Senate were both in session this week. American Legion legislative staff testified before two subcommittees of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs this week.

DAMA Subcommittee Legislative Hearing

On July 7, the Disability and Memorial Affairs (DAMA) subcommittee heard testimony on several pending pieces of legislation. Deputy Legislative Director Ian de Planque offered American Legion positions on the bills. The slate of bills included protections for veterans' pensions as well as their Second Amendment rights. HR 1826, supported by The American Legion, reinstates criminal penalties for those taking advantage of veterans and charging them unauthorized fees, a growing concern particularly as predatory agents seek to exploit veterans in need of eldercare.

HR 1898 - The Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act, also supported by The American Legion, would protect certain veterans from automatically losing firearms licensure solely on account of certain VA disability findings. While a judge or legal panel will and should be able to deem such veterans incompetent to own firearms should the circumstances support the finding, veterans unable to manage their finances but otherwise fully capable of rational action and decision making will not find their rights infringed.

HR 2349 - The Veterans' Benefits Training Improvement Act of 2011 was also on the slate of legislation. This interesting bill proposes annual standardized testing of VA employees, with remedial improvement plans mandatory if such employees receive substandard scoring on the testing and other potential penalties. The American Legion supports the concept of the testing, and especially supports consequences for VA employees who routinely fail to display adequate subject matter knowledge, however questions remain regarding the implementation of this bill and The Legion offered guarded support provided implementation hurdles could be ironed out.

Several other minor pieces of legislation were also on the slate, but were not supported or opposed by resolution and received minimal comment.

EO Subcommittee Legislative Hearing

Also on July 7th, in testimony before the House Veterans Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Legion staff endorsed seven veteran-friendly bills now being considered. In oral testimony on July 7, Assistant Director Jeff Steele highlighted three items of special interest to the Legion.

One, H.R. 2345, would extend until 2018 the current VA monthly assistance payments to disabled veterans training for and competing in the Winter and Summer Paralympic Games; the Olympic games for athletes with physical disabilities. The bill would extend VA financial assistance to the U.S. Paralympic Team as well. Steele told subcommittee members, "Since its foundation in 1919, The American Legion has identified as its most important issue to be the rehabilitation and reintegration of the disabled veteran. We know that sports and physical activity can have a transformative effect on those with a physical disability and the continued provision of funds will help to expand and provide greater access to sports programs for injured veterans and disabled members of the Armed Forces. The American Legion supports this bill."

In his oral remarks Steele also registered Legion support of HR 2329, a bill that encourages financial institutions' compliance with the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), the act that, among other things, postpones or suspends certain financial obligations incurred by deployed servicememembers and protects their homeowner mortgages. SCRA is designed to enable deployed servicemembers to devote their full attention to duty and relieve stress on their family members. The proposed law would require that large lending institutions subject to the SCRA make a designated employee responsible for the institution's compliance with the act and distribute information about the SCRA to servicemembers.

The proposed law was inspired by reports earlier this year that one of nation's largest banks had been overcharging about thousands of servicemembers on their home loans, and had improperly foreclosed on the homes of more than a dozen military families. Steele told the congressional subcommittee, "(The Legion) wholeheartedly joined the chorus of justifiable outrage about this shocking situation and called upon all financial institutions that handle mortgages for military families to review policies and practices, to make sure they are obeying federal law.

"While the bank involved has issued a mea culpa and made efforts to reassure the men and women of our military their commitment to make this right," continued, "the episode makes it clear that further strengthening of the SCRA is called for. It is a national security imperative that servicemembers be able to fight the nation's wars without having to worry about their rights being trampled at home."

The last item also related to the SCRA. The bill, HR 1263, would extend Servicemembers Civil Relief Act financial protections against property seizure or foreclosure to surviving spouses of servicemembers who suffer service-connected death.

LEGISLATIVE FOCUS FOR THE WEEK: Update on American Legion Charter. H. R. 2369, the bill to amend the charter of The American Legion is now posted on THOMAS, the Library of Congress tracking website for Congressional legislation and can be found here:

The bill amends the charter of The American Legion to facilitate credit card processing of online membership renewal and other purposes. The bill has been referred to the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives.