LEGION-RELATED LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS
Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate were in session this week. The Congress will be on recess from April 30 to May 4.
Air National Guard Budget Cuts Rolled Back
In a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Monday backed off from a proposed $400 million cutback of funding for the Air National Guard. This cutback was part of the larger attempt to reduce the U.S. defense budget over the next decade. Further, Mr. Panetta will seek to retain 2,200 Air National Guard personnel and 24 C-130 transport planes slated for budget cuts.
When President Obama’s defense spending cuts were originally announced, the proposed reductions to the Air National Guard drew the most fire from members of Congress and various state governors. After weeks of lobbying from these individuals, Secretary Panetta told Congress that he would agree to significantly reduce the cuts. This small move represents the first line-item defeat for the Pentagon’s FY 2013 budget reductions.
While DOD has initially committed to a congressional mandate to reduce its budget by almost a half-trillion dollars, the military is leaving the dirty work of enumerating those reductions to Congress. As a result, members will have to make difficult decisions whether to add the $400 million in spending to the Pentagon’s multi-year request for this account, or to find an equal amount of spending cuts in other areas of the DOD budget.
This situation is, by no means, anywhere near completion. Several more months of negotiations, votes, and the like will likely occupy Congress. The Legislative Division will keep a close eye on happenings and uphold our resolutions that clearly define our opposition to cuts.
LEGISLATIVE DIVISION ACTIONS
Senate Judiciary Subcommittee Scrutinizes Arizona Immigration Law
On April 24, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security held a hearing aimed at examining the issue of the states enforcement of immigration law in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s hearing arguments over Arizona’s controversial immigration law. The witnesses called to testify on the issue included The Honorable Steve Gallardo, Senator, Arizona State Senate; Russell Pearce, President, BanAmnestyNow.com and former member of the Arizona State Senate; Dennis W. DeConcini, Partner, DeConcini, McDonald, Yetwin & Lacy, P.C.; and Todd Landfried, Executive Director, Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform.
Senator Chuck Schumer opened the hearing with a statement which was critical of the Arizona law. He stated that in the past, the Supreme Court has consistently interpreted the Constitution as granting sole power of the Federal Government to enforce immigration laws, and that a situation in which each state has its own version of immigration laws would be akin to each state maintaining separate laws pertaining to trade. The three steps to dealing with the issue enumerated by Sen. Schumer were: dealing with illegal immigration, fixing the legal immigration system, and dealing with the illegal immigrants already present in the United States. “It is not the intent of Congress that states should pass their own laws to enforce immigration” he said.
Senator Dick Durbin then delivered his opening statement, in which he was also critical of the Arizona law. He stated that the law is harmful to children of illegal immigrants who wish to become productive members of the United States citizenry, either through attending college, serving in the military, or both. Additionally, he indicated that the law would promote racial profiling, which in his opinion, is unacceptable in the United States, as it is inconsistent with the founding values.
Mr. Russell Pierce then delivered his testimony, which, being the author of the legislation, was defensive. Effectively, he argued that as a nation of laws, we must work to uphold the rule of law and to protect our citizens. The current situation of criminals, drug traffickers, and potentially terrorists crossing the border with impunity endangers the rule of law and the citizens which it is designed to protect. The law, he argued, has had the effect of reducing crime, given the crime statistics indicating few instances of the type of crime which it was implemented to reduce, and serves to effectively uphold the rule of law in Arizona.
The three remaining witnesses testified in opposition to the Arizona law, arguing essentially that it serves to promote racial profiling, and undermines the human rights of illegal immigrants, and the civil rights of American citizens of Hispanic descent. Mr. Landfield argued that the legislation is bad policy and bad law from an economic standpoint, in that it is bad for business and bad for production. He acknowledged that, while illegal immigration is an issue which demands to be addressed, “we should examine solutions which work, rather than continuing to debate those which do not.”
Coalition for the Common Defense Meeting
On April 24, 2012, Legislative staff attended a meeting of the Coalition for the Common Defense. The agenda included a discussion of the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a briefing on issues related to the defense budget, and a short summary of the progress of the Coalition’s Defense Economic Impact Breakdown report, which demonstrates the economic impacts of defense budget cuts across the country.
The discussion on the NDAA included concerns about the impending sequester of military funding on the basis of the failure of last fall’s Supercommittee, and possible strategic routes forward. The subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee are marking up the legislation this week.
Marshall Hanson of the Reserve Officer’s Association then gave a briefing on the potential increases in TRICARE fees and co-pays, which could significantly impact active-duty military members and retirees. More information and The American Legion’s position statement on this issue can be found here: http://www.legion.org/veteransbenefits/162658/legion-opposes-projected-t...
Finally, the discussion turned to the updating of Coalition’s Defense Economic Impact Breakdown report, using newly attained 2011 information.
House Judiciary Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Pools and Spas
The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution conducted a hearing Monday evening, April 24th regarding recent guidance from the Department of Justice on access to pools and spas under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The hearing was sharply politically charged, and contentious, even being interrupted for some time by protestors for the disabled who chanted “Access is a Civil Right!” to disrupt the testimony of some of the panelists.
The crux of the issue revolved around contentions between hotel owners representing the small business community who claim the new guidance will offer severe financial obstacles to the operators of hotels containing pools to make the needed adjustments, and disability advocates who note the current requirements do not address the needs of disabled people attempting to access the pools in public places. Most notable are the differences between permanent fixed lifts and removable portable lifts for pool access.
Many hotels already have the portable lifts, which apparently would not be deemed adequate under the new regulations. The hotel owners claim that in many locations there have been no requests for use of the lifts despite decades of their being in place. The disability advocates argue that in locations that claim to be serviced by the portable lifts, the lifts are either commonly loaned out and unavailable, or staff does not know how to operate them, thus essentially voiding the existence of the lifts and denying access to the pools for the disabled.
The water was further muddied by the hotel owners’ argument that in addition to financial setbacks, the permanent lifts would create a safety hazard if children play with them unsupervised and open the hotels to potential lawsuits. The disability advocates counter that the pools themselves represent a hazard for unsupervised children anyway, and the lifts would represent no greater additional threat.
The American Legion obviously is concerned about any potential impact on the disabled in communities, recognizing the challenges faced by disabled veterans. However, currently there is no applicable resolution relating to this matter so no position on the regulations and how they have been implemented has been advanced. The American Legion staff will continue to monitor developments regarding this regulatory change.
Senate Grills VA over Mental Health Wait Times Failures
In a heavily attended hearing Wednesday, April 25th of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs (SVAC), the bipartisan might of the committee unleashed a harsh wave of criticism of VA officials for a continuing pattern of failure addressing wait time problems with scheduling for mental health care in the VA health care system. Chairman Patty Murray (WA) began the hearing by reciting a litany of previous attempts to address this issue, dating back to studies done in 2005 and 2007. These problems culminated in a recent, committee-ordered study by the Office of the Inspector General (IG) released at the beginning of this week that found serious discrepancies between VA’s self reported findings and the findings of IG investigators.
While VA has clung to claims that “95 percent of all veterans are seen within 14 days of the desired appointment date” the IG report showed instead that “only 49 percent, approximately 184,000 of first-time patients, [receive] their evaluations within 14 days” and noted that VA wait times could even be 50 days or more. Chairman Murray found this unacceptable.
VA acknowledged the errors and offered little in terms of a substantial defense of conditions. William Schoenhard, Deputy Undersecretary for Health Operations and Management, testifying on behalf of VA. He stated VA was taking serious steps to address these problems; however, the acknowledgment of the problem and promises of VA to address them did little to assuage the concerns of the committee.
Senator Scott Brown (MA), sitting in as Ranking Member for the minority, matched Murray’s tone of anger at the problems exposed by the report and testimony from Nick Tolentino, an OEF/OIF veteran and mental health professional who had previously worked for VA at a medical center in Manchester, MA. Brown began by reminding VA “We’re spending $5.9 BILLION this year on mental health, how are we not filling these positions? How is it we’re STILL not managing to serve these veterans?”
Brown probed further, citing an inquiry made by Ranking Member Richard Burr (NC) in December of 2011 that found 1,500 mental health positions in VA were still vacant. “Are these 1,900 new mental health positions VA announced this week to fill those 1,500 slots?” Mr. Schoenhard indicated these were new positions to deal with the rising need for mental health treatment. “So we now have 3,400 positions to fill? You couldn’t fill 1,500, how can we feel confident we’re going to get these positions filled?” VA insisted they had a newly developed hiring strategy specifically designed to address this very issue.
Sen. John Tester (MT) offered at least some relief to VA’s position, noting in rural Montana, his home state, that many communities don’t even have a large enough pool of mental health providers outside the system; therefore, in some places VA is fighting a difficult fight to fill positions in areas away from traditional metropolitan areas. Tester remained critical, however, of what seemed to be a cultural issue within VA to simply “game the system” and make numbers match the targets without regard to whether the patients were actually being served and treated.
The testimony of Nick Tolentino, a former VA mental health professional, indicated management at a local level was most concerned with making sure the numbers matched the goals. To that end, VA even directed staff like him “[not to] ask veterans if they have any other problems when treating them for their first appointments, because then [we] would be obligated to treat those problems.”
Mr. Schoenhard responded adamantly that this was not the intended application of policy and such attitudes were not the intent of Central Office. He noted VA was looking into these allegations at Manchester, and Tester added “You should look into this at ALL of your medical centers. This is just unacceptable.”
Though there was only a single panel for the hearing, questioning progressed through a second and even third round as the committee held VA’s feet to the fire on the issue. Chairman Murray reiterated frustration that this was an issue the committee had been pursuing with VA for over seven years and pledged that this hearing would not be the end of the matter.
Sen. Brown, in a later round of questioning seemed to capture the heart of the frustrations of the committee as well as the overall veterans’ community. Grilling Mr. Schoenhard over veterans who call into VA in critical crisis, perhaps at a critical risk for suicide, and yet cannot get timely appointments for treatment, he asked why this was the case. Mr. Schoenhard replied “They should get the appointments.”
“But they’re not [getting the appointment]” countered Sen. Brown.
“They should get the appointment.” Mr. Schoenhard returned.
“But THEY’RE NOT!” Brown interrupted firmly, plaintively adding “Just admit this, we all know it. Just admit it so we can move on to fix the problem.”
As Chairman Murray firmly stated, this issue is not over with this hearing.