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 Congressional Updates

 The House of Representatives was not in session this week, but will return next Monday.  The Senate will remain in session until April. The biggest issues in front of Congress now is the development of a budget resolution within the House – the Senate has said they won’t create one – and passage of several authorization bills

Senate Veteran Affairs Committee Hearing on Homeless Veterans

“We cannot violate their trust and safety when we place them in homeless veteran housing.” – Chairman Patty Murray (WA)

 On March 14, The American Legion attended the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on homeless veteran programs and the challenges faced within the communities and VA to end veteran homelessness in by 2013.  Although the trend on the numbers of veterans who are homeless continued to decline, witnesses expressed skepticism in the accuracy of those counts, now more than 67,000 veterans, and the ability of VA to leverage existing data against programs to end homelessness.

 Two of the most poignant witnesses were two homeless female veterans who had used the VA system.  While their initial engagement with the VA highlighted a need for better case management, their ultimate success in non-profit transitional housing programs became one of the highlights of the hearing.  As ranking member Burr (NC) noted, cooperation and coordination between VA, HUD, and these non-profits are essential in success.  He noted, “VA is focused on the crisis de jour while these (non-profit and community based organizations) are focusing on meeting the needs of homeless veterans.”

Perhaps the most striking data revealed that despite a $200 million increase in funding during the past year, VHA has no standards for security, grant monitoring, and program oversight once the grants are offered.  Of the funds distributed in 2010, all lacked guidance on security measures for veteran participants, including female veterans in homeless housing.  One-third did not address the unique issues of women veterans in their grant applications.  Of the facilities surveyed, 27 percent did not have adequate control of the medicines provided to the residents.  Nearly half of the VA Regional offices failed to do specific homeless outreach programs. 

 When asked how these security implications weighed upon her choice to stay at a homeless transitional facility, one female veteran testified, “I’d rather stay in my car with my kids” than stay in an unsafe homeless facility. 

 Ultimately, although trend is decreasing, troubling anecdotal stories and evaluation of the efforts VA is providing towards ending homelessness are a cause for concern.  As the VA OIG testified, “the VA does not have the data necessary to end homelessness.”  As more and more money is allocated towards ending veteran homelessness, this finding remains troubling to The American Legion.

Looking forward, witnesses and testimony encouraged VA and Congress to look towards improvement of the veteran per diem and grant program.  These included:

·         Adding a cost-of-living increase in the per diem allocation to keep pace with existing costs associated with veteran care.

·         Encourage capital funding grants, to be matched by the non-profits, to facilitate construction of new homeless transitional facilities, especially those for women and veterans with families.

·         Minimize or eliminate coed veteran housing to maximize safety of residents.

·         Provide additional funding for innovative treatment and care of homeless veterans who are suffering from PTSD, TBI and other maladies.

House Subcommittee Examines Possible Additional BRACs

On March 8, the American Legion attended the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness hearing entitled “The Request for Authorization of Another BRAC Round and Additional Reductions in Overseas Bases”. The purpose was to examine the implications of two more rounds (in FY 2013 and FY 2015) of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, asked for by President Obama in his FY 2013 budget request.

The witnesses were: Dr. Dorothy Robyn, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Installations and Environment, accompanied by Brigadier General Christopher D. Bishop, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Plans; and Mr. Brian Lepore, Director, Defense Capabilities Assessment, Government Accountability Office. [Note: the most recent BRAC round in 2005 resulted in 190 closures and realignments.]

Witness Robyn stated the Defense Department (DOD) needs authority for two more BRAC rounds to shed excess building space and save money. DOD currently has over 300,000 buildings in its inventory. The BRAC rounds would align DOD property with department strategic guidance for a leaner, more flexible force as it rebalances after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She said DOD is requesting a 5.5 percent reduction in military end strength and these cuts needed to be accompanied by cuts in infrastructure, including military bases. Keeping excess inventory would force DOD to cut spending on forces, training and modernization.

Both Robyn and Bishop said DOD needs to close installations in the United States, for which it needs congressional approval, and overseas. Most of the bases to be closed overseas will be in Europe. DOD plans to reduce the number of installations in Europe from more than 300 to about 200 and eliminate excess support infrastructure such as warehouses, administrative space, and housing. Witness Bishop said, for example, that DOD was planning to cut up to 8 Army Brigade Combat Teams and two of those would be in Europe.

When asked by committee members why DOD needs BRAC authority rather than just close unneeded DOD infrastructure, Robyn stated BRAC closures are a better process because it involves allowing for more community involvement. Chairman Forbes questioned whether this authority was needed at this time. He said that in his initial assessment our current force structure is correct and our infrastructure is adequately sized. And since he does not agree that a reduced force structure is required he also is opposed to another round of BRAC cuts.

Witness Lepore said, although he understood DOD wanted to cut to achieve savings, that the budget did not include any numbers regarding BRAC savings and that no analysis of savings had been made.

Representative Joe Courtney (CT) said that the upfront costs associated with BRAC made no sense, even if the budget would see savings, because DOD must reduce its budget now under the Budget Control Act and that DOD has not given Congress any savings information.


Update on Flag Amendment Bills

Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (UT) office continues to solicit additional cosponsors for Senate Joint Resolution (S.J. Res.) 19, a proposed constitutional amendment to protect the American flag from physical desecration. Its text states simply: “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.” The cosponsor total for the Senate legislation stands at 33.

To date, H.J. Res. 13 – the House companion to the Senate measure – has accumulated 81 cosponsors. Two new cosponsors – Reps. Mark Amodei (NV) and Collin Peterson (MN) – were added last week.

Please contact your representatives’ and senators’ offices, and ask them to become cosponsors of the flag amendment in their respective chambers. If they are already cosponsors, be sure to thank them for their support.

Letters of Support

On March 7, The American Legion sent a letter to Rep. Jeff Denham (CA), stating our support for draft legislation entitled the “Veteran Skills to Jobs Act.” This measure would provide for federal certification of veterans who have been qualified for licensure through relevant military training. This will assist in the process of ensuing that veterans are able to smoothly and quickly transition between military and civilian employment.

On March 13, our organization sent a letter to Senator Jim Webb (VA), stating our support for S. 2179, a bill entitled the “Military and Veterans Educational Reform Act of 2012.” This measure would includes numerous provisions aimed at protecting veterans from predatory recruiting practices which are increasingly utilized by some for-profit institutions.