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Congressional Updates

Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate were in session. The House is scheduled to be in recess next week (May 21-25), while the Senate has scheduled its home work period for May 28 through June 1.

House Passes FY13 Commerce-Justice-Science Programs Spending Bill

On May 10 the full House approved H.R. 5326, a measure to fund the Departments of Commerce and Justice and Science programs. The vote for passage was 247-163. Several of the accounts in the Department of Justice are of particular concern to The American Legion. Some of the funding amounts for selected accounts include:

• $8.3 billion for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI);
• $2.0 billion for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA);
• $1.8 billion for state and local law enforcement and crime prevention grant programs;
• $1.2 billion for the U.S. Marshals Service;
• $1.1 billion for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF); and,
• $210 million for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).

A Senate companion measure, S. 2323, has not yet been acted upon by the full Senate. These measures are still in the preliminary stages of the legislative process. Both congressional chambers must approve these bills, before they are presented to the President for his signature.

Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Approves FY13 MilCon-VA Spending Bill

Both the House and Senate Appropriations committees have begun the long process of producing spending measures to fund federal government operations for next fiscal year. On May 15 a Senate Appropriations subcommittee approved a draft measure to fund Military Construction and the Department of Veterans Affairs and related programs for FY 2013. The measure was passed by voice vote.

The measure includes $10.6 billion for military construction accounts, including:
• $1.6 billion for family housing construction and privatization projects;
• $1 billion for reserve component construction, such as readiness centers, training facilities, and construction related to the training and administration of the reserve components;
• $476 million for Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) activities related to the 1990 and 2005 processes; and,
• $151 million for chemical demilitarization construction.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) would receive a total of $135.6 billion for FY 2013 -- $74.6 billion in mandatory funding, and $60.9 billion for discretionary spending. This amount includes $52.5 billion in advance appropriations for FY 2014. The subcommittee added $155 million to the medical care request for the upcoming year, after VA made revised medical care projections.

Highlights of some of the discretionary spending areas addressed include:
• $7.2 billion for long term care for the nation’s aging veterans, as well as severely wounded combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan;
• $5.8 billion for health care and support services for homeless veterans;
• $3.3 billion for the Information Technology (IT) account;
• $3.28 billion to meet the health care needs of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans;
• $583 million for medical and prosthetic research;
• $403 million to meet the unique needs of women veterans;
• $250 million for rural health care for veterans;
• $86 million for the Board of Veterans Appeals, an $8 million increase over the current year, to help address the claims backlog.

Funding for related agencies which interest The American Legion includes:

• $149 million for the Arlington National Cemetery, which includes $103 million for planning, design, and construction of expansion for the cemetery;
• $74 million for the American Battle Monuments Commission;
• $68 million for the operation, maintenance, and capital program of the Armed Forces Retirement Home; and,
• $32 million for the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

This action by the Senate subcommittee is just the first act of the appropriations process. The bill was set to be voted on in the full appropriations committee, but the vote was postponed for lack of a quorum on Thursday.

House Appropriations Committee Approves FY 2013 MilCon-VA Spending Measure

On May 16 the Legislative Division attended the House Committee on Appropriations markup of the Fiscal Year 2013 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill. The bill passed out of committee and was sent to the House floor for debate. This bill will fund essential programs and services for troops, veterans, and military families. The bill totals $71.7 billion in discretionary funding, which is the same as the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 level.

Bill provisions of importance to The American Legion include:
• Military Construction – $10.6 billion – a decrease of $2.4 billion below last year’s level.
• Military Family Housing –$1.65 billion for housing and supports privatization of the remaining 7% of Department of Defense (DoD) family housing inventory.
• Military Medical Facilities –$927 million for construction and alterations for new or existing facilities including the second phase funding for the replacement hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, which is the main hospital for the care of our wounded troops abroad.
• Department of Defense Education Facilities –$547 million for essential safety improvements and infrastructure work in both the U.S. and overseas.
• Veterans Affairs (VA) – $135.4 billion in discretionary and mandatory funding. Discretionary funding is $60.7 billion, which is $2.3 billion above last year’s level.
• Medical Services – $41.4 billion – for approximately 6.3 million patients to be treated in FY 2013. These funds include: $6.2 billion in mental health care services; $73 million in suicide prevention activities; $220 million for traumatic brain injury treatment; $5.8 billion in homeless veterans treatment, services, housing, and job training; and $250 million in rural health initiatives.
• Minor Construction – $608 million, which is $125 million above FY 2012 and the same as the budget request. These funds will allow VA to build or renovate health clinics, medical residences, and nursing homes, as well as acquire cemetery land and facilities.
• Oversight – The legislation includes provisions to increase oversight of taxpayer dollars at VA, including requiring VA to report on construction expenditures and savings, forbidding new changes in the scope of construction projects, and restricting VA from taking certain spending actions without notifying Congress.
• Advance Appropriations – $54.5 billion in FY 2014 funding – the same level provided in the House-passed Budget Resolution. This funding will provide funding for medical services, medical support and compliance, and medical facilities.
• Arlington National Cemetery – $174 million, an increase of $128 million over last year’s level; within the total, $84 million is provided for the Millennium Project and $19 million is for planning and design of the Navy Annex Expansion.

FY13 Homeland Security Spending Measure Approved by Senate Subcommittee

On May 15 the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security approved draft legislation to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the next fiscal year. It totals $45.1 billion, a reduction of $1 billion below current year spending level.

Programs of interest to The American Legion received the following funding under this measure:

• $11.9 billion for U.S. Customs and Border Protection;
• $10.3 billion for the U.S. Coast Guard;
• $7.6 billion for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA);
• $5.6 billion for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE);
• $1.6 billion for the U.S. Secret Service:
• $1.4 billion for state and local grant programs for “first responders;” and,
• $258 million for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

The House Appropriations Committee is still developing its version of this legislation.

House Veterans’ Subpanel Examines Prosthetics Procurement

On Wednesday, May 16 the House Veterans’ Affairs Health Subcommittee held a hearing to examine VA’s current capabilities to provide state-of-the-art care to veterans with amputations. The subcommittee heard testimony concerning VA’s proposal to change procurement processes for prostheses, potentially hindering a veteran’s ability to acquire the latest prosthetic and corresponding care and support.

VA officials testifying insisted that the change was relatively small, and would only affect about three percent of total prostheses procurement; furthermore, these changes were required to bring VA into compliance with federal regulations on government procurement. However, veterans present expressed concerns, as prosthetic medicine is a growing field in VA medicine. As more and more veterans are returning from battlefields with amputations as medical science has improved ensuring many veterans who previously would have died in combat are now able to return home alive, albeit with disabilities they must learn to overcome.

Currently, VA provides care to approximately 42,000 veterans with limb loss. As of August of 2011, 1,506 service members had experienced amputations on active duty from Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. An additional 2,248 veterans underwent major amputations at VA in 2011. VA prosthetic costs have more than doubled in the past five years, yet, VA’s care has fallen behind that of the Department of Defense (DOD).

Veterans present testified to the changing nature of returning veterans as well. Whereas in previous eras a veteran might only hope to be able to walk again or only hope to meet basic functions of daily life, today’s veterans are utilizing cutting edge technology to take on greater challenges than previously envisioned. Today’s veterans compete in the Paralympics and Wounded Warrior Games. Today’s veterans are overcoming obstacles to engage in rock climbing and myriad sports in ways the amputees of the past could never envision.

While DOD centers of excellence are delivering state of the art technology, questions remain as to whether VA can provide the same level of care, and the change in procurement only raises further questions.

“Prosthetic technology and VA have come a long way from the Civil War era. Following World War II, veterans dissatisfied with the quality of VA prosthetics stormed the Capitol in protest. Congress responded by providing VA with increased flexibility for prosthetic options and federally funded research and development,” said Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, the subcommittee’s chairman. “As a result, VA has been a leader in helping veterans with amputations regain mobility and achieve maximum independence. This is why I am troubled by VA’s proposed changes in procurement policies and procedures which shifts the emphasis from the doctors to contracting officers.”

VA officials reiterated their commitment to ensuring veterans in the VA system receive the same, if not better, quality of care available anywhere. The hearing was ultimately inconclusive, as some members wanted further study before such a change in procurement policy went into effect, yet VA seemed likely to move forward regardless, as they insisted such changes were necessary to come into full compliance with federal regulations.

House Ways & Means Subcommittee Examines Tax-Exempt Organizations

On Wednesday, May 16th, the House Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight held a hearing on the operation and oversight of tax-exempt organizations. This issue has risen to the agenda of the committee again and recent articles and stories on veteran non-profit organizations have led The American Legion to become concerned. On May 1st, Commander Wong sent a letter to Congress asking for a hearing on non-profit organizations. This is the first of several on the subject.

The primary focus of the hearing was on 501(c)(3) organizations, many of the guidelines and regulations that were discussed also related to 501(c)(19) organizations like The American Legion. According to the IRS, nearly 1 in every 10 workers in the U.S. is employed by a nonprofit organization accounting for nearly $670 billion in annual wages and benefits. Nonprofit organizations inspired 62.8 million Americans to contribute more than 8 billion hours of volunteer service in 2010.

While the articles and criticism of fraud and malfeasance amongst non-profits usually strike fear into the well-intentioned organizations, data presented didn’t support widespread wrongdoing. In a study of malfeasance by charitable organizations highlighted in Wrongdoing by Officers and Directors Charities, between 1995 and 2002, only 152 of 1.4 million organizations were accused of civil or criminal wrongdoing.

The hearings conclusion was that the overwhelmingly complex tax code, especially as it relates to non-profit organizations, is becoming burdensome and causing hardship. Despite recent clarification and ease with annual filing and disclosure documents, the complexity remains causing significant costs to comply. Moreover, in the event of an IRS audit, these costs are significantly compounded. Witnesses agreed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) should be encouraged to develop effective approaches to meet the needs of the agency, public and non-profit entity in a reasonable and cost-effective manner. The committee noted they will continue to examine this issue as they look towards writing a larger legislative piece on tax reform.

House VA Subcommittee Examines Reform of For-Profit Colleges

On Wednesday, May 16th, 2012 the House Veterans Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity held a hearing aimed at inquiring into the impacts of Executive Order 13607, which aims at reforming some of the practices of institutions of higher learning, particularly those which operate on a for-profit basis, precipitated by the advent of the Post 9-11 GI Bill. The American Legion provided testimony for the record.

The witnesses were broken into three panels. The first panel consisted of representatives of several Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Student Veterans of America (SVA) and Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). Each organization being a signatory of the GI Bill of Rights, the document on which the Executive Order was loosely based, the testimony of the first panel largely consisted of affirmations of the president’s order. Ryan Gallucci of VFW offered recommendations to institutions on how to most effectively implement the requirements of the executive order. IAVA’s Tom Tarantino highlighted the need for an easily navigated web site which offers a range of information to veterans regarding schools which they may be considering attending.

The second panel consisted of representatives of various organizations involved in higher education. The reactions to the Executive Order from this panel were much more mixed, when compared to the first panel. Specifically, objections included:
- Section 2(a), which requires schools to provide the total amount of tuition, and the amount of aid they may be eligible for; objection on the grounds that prospective students do not routinely identify themselves as veterans on enrollment forms;
- Section 3, which provides guidelines pertaining to mandatory data reporting, particularly the metric used to gauge success, i.e. graduation rates;
- The apparent singling-out of for-profit institutions in the Executive Order;
- Sections 2(g) and 3(d), which require educational plans for members using federal military and educational benefits, and comparisons of educational institutions using various criteria; objection on the grounds that the additional professional time and effort will require additional staff; and,
- VA’s lack of guidance and inconsistent information-sharing impede certain requirements outlined in the Executive Order.

The third panel consisted of only one testifying witness, Chad Schatz of the National Association of State Approving Agencies. Mr. Schatz echoed many of the concerns offered by the previous panel, and added an objection to section 2(d), which “appears to limit the use of the GI Bills and discriminate against enrollment in some very good ‘non-accredited’ programs of education’”. Additionally, Mr. Schatz indicated a need for further study and discussion with regard to section 4, which mandates the creation of a centralized complaint system.


Letters of Support

On May 9, The American Legion sent letters to Reps. Buck McKeon (CA) and Adam Smith (WA), respectively the chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. The letter asked that language be added to the draft National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY 2013 that would prohibit the return of the Bells of Balangiga – war trophies currently residing at a U.S. Air Force base in Wyoming – to the Philippines without specific authorization of law. A resolution to this extent was passed just hours before the letters were delivered.

The Bells of Balangiga were used to signal Filipino insurgents to initiate an attack on American troops during the Philippine-American War in 1901 on the island of Samar. The survivors of the attack brought the bells home to this country and placed them in a memorial to honor their fallen comrades. There were recent reports that the State Department was negotiating with the Filipino government to remove these bells from their current location and return these trophies to the Philippines. Our organization believes that surrendering the Bells of Balangiga sets a dangerous precedent for all present and future war memorials.

On May 11 our organization sent a letter of support to Sen. Frank Lautenberg (NJ) for proposed legislation he wrote which proposes various protections for TRICARE beneficiaries. The measure would put into law protections that would prevent capricious and significant increases in co-pays, hospital expenses, and other fees. It would also provide a sense of Congress that career members of the uniformed services and their families experience decades of unique demands and sacrifices that constitute a significant pre-paid premium for their health care in retirement.

On May 14 The American Legion sent letters of support to Reps. Elijah Cummings (MD) and Bob Filner (CA), supporting a draft amendment to H.R. 4310, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY 2013. The proposed legislation would: protect service members deployed in support of contingency operations from home foreclosures; expand the civil penalties levied against unscrupulous lenders to better reflect the seriousness of violations against the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act; and, it would expand the 12-month stay against foreclosures for service members discharges with a 100 percent disability rating, as well as offering a similar stay for surviving spouses.

On May 16, our organization sent a letter of support to Rep. Joe Walsh (IL), standing behind his amendment to H.R. 4310 which would utilize industry-recognized certification or licensing opportunities for civilian occupational skills comparable to military specialties. The amendment will allow service members to become more competitive in the job market, as well as proficient in their military occupational career.

Also on May 16, The American Legion sent letters of support to Reps. Chris Gibson (NY) and Peter Welch (VT), supporting an amendment to H.R. 4310 which provides for an expansion of the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program. The YRRP is a program aimed at providing assistance to transitioning service members by working in conjunction with other federal partners – including the Small Business Administration and the Departments of Labor and Veterans Affairs – to provide up-to-date and relevant information to the members of the forces and their families. The amendment would expand the resources necessary for more states to implement the improved YRRP.

On May 17, our organization sent a letter of support to Rep. Rush Holt (NJ), standing behind his amendment to H.R. 4310 which would establish an ongoing commission to examine the improper treatment of this country’s war dead at the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operation at Dover Air Force Base. The commission would promote best practices for the treatment of our fallen heroes and their families.

Also on May 17, The American Legion sent letters of support to Sen. Jack Reed (RI), supporting legislation entitled the “Servicemember Housing Protection Act of 2012.” The measure would expand protections under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). These include certain consumer protections, foreclosure protection, and ease of transition from off-post to on-post housing.