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Congressional Updates

Both chambers of Congress were in session this week. Next week, neither the House nor the Senate will be in session for the Thanksgiving holiday recess.

This Friday, November 18 is the last day for current short-term funding for the federal government contained in P.L. 112-36. As a result of the continually stalled appropriations process for FY 2012, Congress is now taking desperate measures.

On Thursday Congress passed H.R. 2112, a “minibus” measure to fund the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Justice, and Transportation for the balance of FY 2012. This measure also contained another continuing resolution (CR) to keep the rest of the federal government running until December 16. The House passed the measure by a vote of 298-121. Then, the Senate approved the bill by a vote of 70-30. H.R. 2112 now awaits the President’s signature, which will probably happen today.

On the heels of this first minibus, a second package of stalled appropriations measures is being prepared for passage. The basis for this second minibus is H.R. 2354, the FY 2012 spending measure for the Department of Energy and Water Projects. Included in this next spending package will be the Department of State and Foreign Operations, as well as Financial Services – which includes funding for the Treasury Department, the Executive Office of the President, the District of Columbia, and various independent agencies, including the Selective Service System. Action on H.R. 2354 will probably occur in the week after Thanksgiving.

LEGISLATIVE FOCUS FOR THE WEEK: Congress Passes “VOW to Hire Heroes Act.”
On Thursday, November 10 the U.S. Senate passed by a 95-0 recorded vote the bill H.R. 674, the “VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011.” The House on November 16 agreed to the amended bill by a vote of 422-0. The measure now goes to the White House for the President’s signature.

Once signed into law, the “VOW to Hire Heroes Act” will boost employment opportunities for the one million unemployed veterans in this country. The unemployment rate for about a quarter-million veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan stands at 12.1 percent. Of the estimated one million jobless veterans in America, two-thirds of them fall within the 35-64 age group.

Key provisions of H.R. 674 include:
• Tax credit of up to $5,600 for businesses hiring veterans who have been looking for a job for more than six months, as well as a $2,400 credit for veterans who are unemployed for more than four weeks, but less than six months.
• Tax credit of up to $9,600 for businesses hiring veterans with service-connected disabilities who have been looking for a job for more than six months.
• Making the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) — an interagency workshop coordinated by the Departments of Defense, Labor and Veterans Affairs — mandatory for service members moving on to civilian life to help them secure meaningful jobs through resume-writing workshops and career counseling.
• Expanding education and training opportunities for older veterans by providing 100,000 unemployed veterans of past eras and wars with up to one year of additional Montgomery GI Bill benefits for education or training programs at community colleges and technical schools.
• Providing disabled veterans up to one year of additional vocational rehabilitation and employment benefits.
• Allowing service members to start looking for federal jobs before separating from active duty in order to facilitate a truly seamless transition from the military to jobs at federal agencies.

“This legislation will go a long way in helping our veterans get decent jobs,” said National Commander Fang A. Wong. “It falls in line with initiatives we supported in my testimony before Congress last September – a mandatory transition assistance program, job training for older veterans, and private-sector recognition of military skills and training.”

Commander Wong further stated, “We applaud the leadership of Senator [Patty] Murray and Representative [Jeff] Miller in creating a piece of legislation that addresses some of the factors that are stopping our veterans from getting jobs.” When troops come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, “The last thing they need is to file for unemployment benefits. They’ve been working hard as medics, truck drivers, mechanics, and a variety of other jobs with civilian counterparts. The government and private sector need to step up and give them work opportunities they deserve. This is what the Legion has been fighting for, and Congress has delivered an impressive set of tools that our veterans can use to earn a living.”

“About one in 12 veterans can’t find a job in this country. And yet, the Department of Labor tells us there are more than three million job openings right now,” Wong said. “They say employers are having trouble finding workers with enough skills and training…They should all be hiring well-trained, disciplined individuals who work well with a team and accomplish the goals they’re given — in other words, they should be hiring veterans.”

According to Tim Tetz, the Legion’s legislative director, provisions of the bill “are fully paid for with funding from VA Home Loan programs and other savings within the department.”

Legion Participates in Hearing on VA Budgetary Concerns

Last April, the legislative directors of five veterans’ service organizations – including The American Legion – sent a co-signed letter to Rep. Jeff Miller (FL), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. It was in response to his call for input about fiscal waste within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and how, in the VSOs’ views, VA could and should save money. The six-page answer expressed concerns by the VSOs about the growth of VA’s central office and Veterans Integrated Service Network activities and personnel pools.

The award of bonuses to VA’s senior executive service employees – in light of questions about management performance – was another concern expressed in the VSO letter to Miller, as were the VA’s record management practices, the cost of shuttling claims paperwork among offices, and the regular and expensive use of authorized overtime to meet increased workload demands.

Inspired by the letter, a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing on the VSOs’ appeals for VA frugality was convened on November 15. The Legion’s Deputy Legislative Director, Ian de Planque, was among those who addressed the congressional panel.

In his opening remarks, Chairman Miller praised the veterans’ service organizations for their response to his call for VA cost-saving suggestions. "The VSO response was outstanding," he said. "They provided nine areas for the committee to examine, and I am so pleased they are here today to discuss those and other areas of potential savings…I believe there are sincere efforts under way – and documented success in several areas already – which show that Secretary Shinseki is serious about VA’s stewardship of taxpayer dollars. Nevertheless, there are many areas that need improvement and continued oversight."

VSO representatives reviewed their concerns while VA officials, including the department’s chief financial officer, responded to questioning by committee members. Discussion naturally turned to the ongoing work of the "supercommittee" (Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction) whose deadline for action is looming. If the JSC fails to reach agreement on the deficit-control goals it has been charged with achieving by Nov. 23, the terms of last summer’s Budget Control Act require sequestration. This action would initiate automatic, across-the-board reductions in federal agency budgets.

Although language in the federal budget agreement seems to shield VA programs from sequestration (though clarification is still needed from the Office of Management and Budget), the Legion’s de Planque said that is not entirely true. In remarks that, in his words, "raised a few eyebrows around the room," de Planque pointed to a major concern of the Legion.

"Some may think that VA programs are protected against cuts in case of sequestration. Not so," de Planque said. "That is because DoL (Department of Labor) and HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) are not immune to sequestration. Since VA’s homeless and employment programs are dependent upon DoL and HUD, they are actually in danger if the supercommittee deadlocks. This is a point that we, the Legion, have been making on the Hill for quite some time."

After the hearing, de Planque expressed appreciation for the challenges faced by the VA in cost containment, while taking into account the need for improvements in its management. "As was pointed out, the system was at 82 percent capacity 10 years ago and now they’re at 120-something percent," de Planque said. "They are straining, and it’s only going to get worse as we slash the number of men and women in the armed forces and put them in a VA system that is already overcrowded. Even though they’re delivering great care and benefits, that’s certainly a concern."

Mr. de Planque said the key words from the hearing were accountability and partnership. "We need to make sure that we maintain an open dialogue. We need to look at these issues not as a chance to finger point or blame, but to actually start a dialogue and, together, create the best system of benefits for our veterans. Take the issue of possibly unearned bonuses for senior executives, for instance. That’s not just a VA practice. That’s something that happens throughout government and needs to be looked at broadly."

During the hearing, the subject of partnership among the VA, Congress and VSOs had been introduced by de Planque. His remarks caught the ear of Rep. Tim Walz (MN), who said, "I thank Ian for his remarks. I thought his idea of partnership was so good, I wrote it down."

Legion Staff Attends U.S. Senate Roundtable on Veterans’ Topics

On November 16, Deputy Legislative Director Ian de Planque was among the invited guests at a roundtable discussion hosted by the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee. The meeting discussed a number of concerns of veterans’ advocates.

The first issue was the fate of H.R. 674, the “VOW to Hire Heroes Act,” as crafted by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Patty Murray (WA), and her House counterpart, Rep. Jeff Miller (FL). The Senate passed the measure on Nov. 10 while the House passed it a few hours after the Senators’ roundtable. Sen. Murray and the bill’s co-sponsor, Sen. Jon Tester (MT), were both effusive in their praise of Congressional colleagues as well as veterans and military support organizations for the success of the legislation. They noted especially the bi-partisan cooperation demonstrated in support of the bill.

The other main issue of concern was the work of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, better known as the “supercommittee.” As the panel’s November 23 deadline for decision making approaches, fears of deadlock and consequent cuts to military and, perhaps, veterans’ budgets grow. This had been a topic of discussion by members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee the previous day, as prompted by Mr. de Planque.

Legion Lobbies for Repatriation of Navy Personnel Buried in Libya

Legion Legislative Division Deputy Director Dean Stoline lobbied with family members lobbying Senators and their staff members on Capitol Hill November 16-17. The American Legion supports the family members who wish the return of the remains of their loved ones and other crew members of the USS Intrepid who lost their lives in the U.S. Navy’s first “special op”, the September 4, 1804, raid by the USS Intrepid in Tripoli Harbor. The seaborne attack was part of the early campaign to halt the seizure of American ships and crews by the so-called Barbary pirates.

Efforts to bring the Intrepid’s crew members home from their graves in Libya have been ongoing, without success, since 1840. The Legion first published a story of the situation in a 1977 article in The American Legion Magazine and recently passed a resolution calling for government intervention to return the sailors’ bodies to their native soil. The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, H.R. 1540, contains a provision to recover these remains, but the Senate version does not. A ‘stand-alone’ bill introduced in the Senate, S. 1822, would also accomplish this repatriation.

World War II Memorial Prayer Act Approved by Committee

On November 17, the House Natural Resources Committee passed by unanimous consent the bill H.R. 2070, entitled the “World War II Memorial Prayer Act of 2011.” If enacted, the measure would direct the Secretary of the Interior to install, in the area of the World War II Memorial in our nation’s capital, a suitable plaque or an inscription with the words that President Franklin D. Roosevelt prayed with the nation on June 6, 1944, the morning of D-Day.

President Signs Comp COLA Measure

On November 9, President Obama enacted P.L. 112-53, the “Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2011.” This law increases, effective December 1, the rates of veterans' service-connected disability compensation, additional compensation for dependents, the clothing allowance for certain disabled veterans, and dependency and indemnity compensation for surviving spouses and children. This will be the first COLA for veterans’ compensation recipients in two years.

Letters of Support

On November 10, The American Legion sent a letter to Rep. Brian Bilbray (CA), thanking him for the introduction of H.R. 3340, entitled the “Help Inspire and Retrain our Exceptional Veterans Act of 2011”or the “HIRE Veterans Act of 2011.” If enacted, this bill would direct the Department of Commerce to establish a grant program to provide veterans with apprenticeships and career advice.

Also on November 10, our organization sent a letter to Sen. Dean Heller (NV), thanking him for introducing S. 1822, the legislation to provide for the exhumation and transfer of the remains of 13 deceased members of the armed forces buried in Tripoli, Libya. This legislation is similar to language contained in H.R. 1540, the “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012.”

Also on November 10, our organization sent a letter to Sen. Pat Toomey (PA), thanking him for introducing S. 1689, entitled the “Veterans Sexual Assault Prevention Act of 2011.” This legislation will strengthen the reporting process and increase the threat assessment tools available to VA, as well as provide for much improved security training and precautions to ensure sexual assaults cannot continue in VA’s health care system.

On November 14, The American Legion sent a letter to Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (NE), thanking him for the introduction of H.R. 3167, entitled the “Veterans’ Entrepreneurial Transition Act of 2011”or the “VET Act of 2011.” If enacted, this bill would provide for the conversion of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill educational benefits into assistance payments for the creation of new business enterprises, the purchase of an existing business, or investment into existing businesses for the purchase of capital equipment, durable expense items or professional services.

Also on November 14, our organization sent a letter to Rep. Nick Rahall (WV), supporting H.R. 3473, entitled the “Mobilizing Opportunities for Veterans Employment Act of 2011” or “MOVE Act of 2011.” This bill intends to provide employment for veterans in transportation construction projects by having recipients of federal funds ensure contractors give hiring preference to veterans who have the skills and abilities to perform the required construction work.