LEGION-RELATED LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS
Both the House and Senate returned to Washington, DC on September 10. Congress hopes to wrap up most of its major work in the next two weeks. Both chambers will recess next Monday and Tuesday (September 17 & 18) for Rosh Hashanah observance. This will leave three legislative days before the anticipated adjournment, allowing House and Senate members to campaign for re-election. However, this could change.
The Commander’s Testimony before the joint House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees is scheduled for October 3.
House Passes FY 2013 Continuing Resolution To Fund Federal Government
On September 13, the House of Representatives passed House Joint Resolution (H.J. Res.) 177 by a 329-91 recorded vote. This measure – usually referred to as a “continuing resolution” or CR – will fund all the operations of the federal government for fiscal year (FY) 2013 for six months, until March 27, 2013, at the same level of funding as the current FY 2012. The Senate is expected to vote on the legislation during the week of September 17, with the President signing the measure shortly thereafter.
For the past several years, Congress has been unable to agree to passage of the traditional 12 appropriations bills which fund the operations of all the U.S. government’s departments, agencies, and programs. Some of this difficulty is political, while some is philosophical. This year’s excuse is the failure of last year’s so-called “supercommittee” to agree to spending reduction targets. As a result, in January of next year, automatic spending cuts – called “sequestration” – will be implemented to begin to reduce federal spending virtually across-the-board.
Despite agreeing to FY 2013 funding levels that parallel 2012 funding amounts, H.J. Res. 117 does includes a 0.6 percent spending increase, amounting to an additional $8 billion in funding to meet various contingencies. Several provisions included in the CR would:
- Allow DOD to acquire supplies in other countries for use in Afghanistan;
- Fund Overseas Contingency Operations at nearly $100 billion;
- Allow additional funding for nuclear weapons modernization efforts, to ensure the safety, security, and reliability of the nation’s nuclear stockpile;
- Allow flexibility for the Customs and Border Protection to maintain current staffing levels;
- Allow additional funding and flexibility to sustain Homeland Security cybersecurity efforts;
- Allow additional funding for the Interior Department and the Forest Service for wildfire suppression efforts;
- Extend the current pay freeze for federal employees, including congressional representatives and senators;
- Allow the launch schedule of new weather satellites to move forward, ensuring the continuation of critical weather information, especially in the event of weather-related natural disasters;
- Require every federal agency to provide spending plans to Congress to ensure transparency and the proper use of taxpayer dollars; and,
- Allow additional funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to meet an increase in the disability claims workload.
The House Appropriations Committee has passed all 12 of the necessary bills to fund the federal government – seven have been approved by the full House – but none of these measures have seen the light of day in the Senate. Therefore, with Congress facing the possibility of no funding measures in place for the start of the next fiscal year – which is October 1 – the leadership in both chambers agreed to the formulation of the CR. The gist of these actions is that the 112th Congress is passing the difficult questions of funding and cost-cutting to the 113th Congress, which will begin on January 3, 2013.
House Passes Revised Stolen Valor Act
The “Stolen Valor Act of 2005” (Public Law 109-437) made it a crime to lie about military service and awards, but this law was overturned three months ago by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of United States v. Alvarez. In response, a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers developed modified legislation – H.R. 1775 – to replace it. On September 13, the House passed the bill by a vote of 410-3.
During a House Judiciary Committee mark-up session on August 1, H.R. 1775 was heavily modified. Among the changes were:
· Individuals who wear military medals or decorations that do not belong to them were exempted from penalties outlined in the bill. This was due to concerns raised in the Alvarez decision in which the Supreme Court stated that simply wearing medals was considered free speech.
· Additionally, language making it a crime to have specifically claimed service in a special operations unit or in a combat zone was dropped.
· However, the new bill makes it a crime to claim that an individual was awarded a “Combat Badge.” It includes a definition for "Combat Badge," which is defined as a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Combat Action Badge, Combat Medical Badge, Combat Action Ribbon or Combat Action Medal.
· The new measure enforces penalties against individuals who, with the intent to obtain money, property or anything of value, fraudulently hold themselves out to be recipients of a military decoration or medal. The original text enforced penalties against those who, “with the intent to obtain anything of value, knowingly makes a misrepresentation regarding his or her military service.”
· Under the bill, punishments against such individuals would include fines or imprisonment of no more than a year, or both. The previous version had higher crimes for claiming the receipt of the Congressional Medal of Honor, Special Operations service, and service in a Combat Zone. The new text makes the punishment uniform.
The measure now goes to the Senate for passage, which is expected sometime next week prior to that body’s adjournment.
Senate VA Panel Marks Up Veterans Legislation
On Wednesday, September 12, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a business meeting in which it considered several pieces of legislation which were pending before the committee. Six pieces of legislation were considered; they included:
S. 3340, introduced by committee Chairman Patty Murray (WA). the “Mental Health Access to Continued Care and Enhancement of Support Services (ACCESS) Act of 2012.” This bill seeks to improve the provision of mental health care to members of the Armed Forces and veterans, to improve assistance to homeless veterans, to improve the provision of health care and benefits to veterans, and for other purposes.
S. 3322, introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown (OH), the “Servicemembers’ Protection Act of 2012.” This measure would strengthen enforcement and clarify certain provisions of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and chapter 43 of title 38, United States Code (U.S.C.), and for other purposes.
S. 3313, also introduced by Chairman Murray, is the “Women Veterans and Other Health Care Improvement Act of 2012.” This legislation would amend title 38, U.S.C., to improve the reproductive assistance provided by VA to severely wounded veterans and their spouses, and for other purposes.
S. 2259, introduced by Sen. Jon Tester (MT), is entitled the “Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2012.” This bill would provide for an increase, effective December 1, 2012, in the rates of compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities and the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation for the survivors of certain disabled veterans, and for other purposes.
S. 2241, also introduced by Chairman Murray, is the “GI Bill Consumer Awareness Act of 2012.” This measure would ensure that veterans have the information and protections they require to make informed decisions regarding use of Post-9/11 Educational Assistance, and for other purposes.
S. 1707, introduced by Sen. Richard Burr (NC), is entitled the “Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act.” This legislation would amend title 38, U.S.C., to clarify the conditions under which certain persons may be treated as adjudicated mentally incompetent for certain purposes.
All bills were reported out of committee, but with some amendment. None of the measures have been scored by the Congressional Budget Office, but Chairman Murray said the necessary funding would be found before the bills are reported to the full Senate.
House Committee Holds Hearing on World War I Memorial
The House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands held a legislative hearing on Tuesday, September 11 to examine two bills, H.R. 6364 and H.R. 4969. The America Legion took an interest in H.R. 6364, given that it relates to the establishment of a World War I centennial commission, which would:
· Plan, develop, and execute programs, projects, and activities to commemorate the centennial of World War I
· Encourage private organizations and State and local governments to organize and participate in activities commemorating the centennial of World War I
· Facilitate and coordinate activities throughout the United States relating to the centennial of World War I
· Serve as a clearinghouse for the collection and dissemination of information about events and plans for the centennial of World War I
· Develop recommendations for Congress and the President for commemorating the centennial of World War I and which would both designate the World War I museum and monument in Kansas City as a National World War I monument, as well as allow for the creation of a new monument on the National Mall in Washington, DC, in the area of Constitution Gardens.
The bill specifies that the memorial would be no more than 1.5 acres, and spending for the memorial would be capped at $10 million, with no federal funds being obligated by the bill.
The first two of the three panels contained panelists addressing this legislation. The first panel addressing this legislation consisted of Reps. Emanuel Cleaver II (MO) and Ted Poe (TX).
The second panel consisted of: Mr. Stephen Whitesell, Regional Director, National Capital Region of the National Park Service, Department of the Interior; Dr. Judy Scott Feldman, Chairman and President, National Coalition to Save Our Mall; and Mr. Edwin L. Fountain, Director, World War I Memorial Foundation.
Mr. Fountain noted that the United States is lagging far behind the efforts of its allies France and Britain when it comes to marking the centennial of the war, which have both established centennial commissions to plan remembrance events.
Dr. Feldman echoed Mr. Whitesell’s concerns, and suggested the creation of a National Mall planning commission to ensure better long-term planning of the mall. Both Mr. Fountain and Dr. Feldman supported the enhancement of Pershing Park on Pennsylvania Avenue as a more appropriate location, and one in line with the standing prohibition.
Mr. Whitesell testified that Constitution Gardens falls under Congress’s prohibition against new construction on the Mall and that making an exception would set a dangerous precedent.
House Armed Services Subpanel Holds Hearing on Federal Voting Assistance Program
The House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Military Personnel held a hearing on Thursday, September 13 to examine the issue of the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP). FVAP administers the federal responsibilities of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) of 1986, as modified by the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE) in 2010. The act covers more than six million potential voters: active duty members of the uniformed services including the Coast Guard, Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, the Merchant Marine, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and their voting age dependents; as well as U.S. citizens residing outside the United States.
Recently, however, the program has come under scrutiny due to a perceived lack of progress made in regards to remedying the issues involving the assured enfranchisement of Americans dwelling overseas, despite the legislation. A recent DOD report concluded that approximately half of the bases lack the required facilities required by the law to assist military members through the voting process.
The witnesses were: Ms. Pamela S. Mitchell, Acting Director, Federal Voting Assistance Program, Department of Defense; and, Ambassador Kenneth Moorefield, Inspector General for Plans and Operations; Department of Defense.
Both witnesses testified the FVAP program is on track toward compliance with the law, and noted many improvements in overseas voting access which have been made since the passage of the legislation.
In questioning, however, many of the subcommittee members did not seem convinced. Rep. Allan West (FL) suggested that though there has been activity in the area, little of it has been directed at compliance with the law, and more to the point, with the intent of the law. He further suggested that the activity had only been a result of the scrutiny, and has not been part of a process toward definitively addressing the issues associated with military voting.
LEGISLATIVE DIVISION ACTIONS
Letters of Support
The American Legion on June 13 sent a letter of support to Sen. Susan Collins (ME), giving our organization’s support for her amendment to S. 3457, legislation entitled the “Veterans Job Corp Act.” This measure would enable Veterans’ Service Organizations (VSOs) to gain increase opportunities to obtain federal surplus property to education, train, and improve the quality of life for veterans. The American Legion has long supported laws to allow VSO’s to obtain federal surplus property for use by America’s veterans.
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 36. To date, H.J. Res. 13 – the House companion bill to the Senate measure – has accumulated 89 cosponsors.
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.