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Congressional Updates

Both the House and Senate were in recess on Monday and Tuesday September 17 & 18 for Rosh Hashanah observance. This left three legislative days before the anticipated adjournment, allowing House and Senate members to campaign for re-election. However, this could change…

Today is National POW-MIA Recognition Day. Please spend a few minutes today considering the service members who still have not come home.

The Commander’s Testimony before the joint House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees is scheduled for October 3.

Military Voting Rights

In 2009, Congress enacted the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE Act), amending the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). As amended, UOCAVA explicitly requires every state to mail out absentee ballots to military and overseas voters by the 45th day preceding any primary or election for federal office. Thus, your local election official (LEO) must have absentee ballots printed and ready to mail by Saturday, September 22, so that military personnel from your community will be able to vote in the November 6 general election, no matter where their service to our country has taken them. But the fact this is required by federal law does not necessarily mean it is going to happen. There are more than 7,500 LEOs administering absentee voting for federal elections, and many of them may be unaware of their obligations under federal law.

UOCAVA voters are active duty service members and their voting age family members, whether within or outside the United States, as well as US citizens outside our country. (Please also note the requirement to send out ballots not later than September 22 applies to active duty service members who are currently serving within the United States, as well as those who are in places like Afghanistan.)

House Hearing on DOD Plans for Sequestration

On Thursday the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), chaired by Rep. Buck McKeon (CA), conducted a hearing on “Department of Defense Plans for Sequestration: The Sequestration Transparency Act of 2012 Report and the Way Forward.” In August Congress passed the Sequestration Transparency Act mandating the Obama administration lay out specifics about the $1.2 trillion in cuts to domestic and defense programs that will start to take place at the beginning of 2013 if Congress is unable to agree on another deficit-reduction plan before the end of the year. They were given 30 days to comply. The White House released the 394-page report a week late on Sept. 14, but the large, numbers-heavy report provides little insight into what would happen within the Defense Department to accommodate the required $50 to $55 billion cut in defense spending in each year over the next decade.

These reductions would come on top of the $487 billion over the next decade already imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011. The budget cuts were enacted by Congress last summer as part of a larger deficit-reduction plan, but were designed to be so unpalatable to both parties that they’d come up with alternative spending trims to avoid hurting the military. But no solution has been reached as of yet. Congress was unable to find a compromise before their anticipated adjournment this week, and lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to Washington for legislative work until after the November elections.

The hearing featured Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale and the service vice chiefs in what turned into a forum for committee members to air their grievances about the automatic cuts and assign blame — to the president, each other, even themselves — for the scheduled spending cuts. But lawmakers of both parties agreed the planned cuts to the Pentagon, were they to go into effect, would be devastating. Nevertheless, DOD still hasn’t started planning for them and this has infuriated congressional Republicans, “They only applied sequestration figures at the account level,” a HASC staffer complained about the report, noting that “the language in the law said that we need to receive information at the program, project and activity level.” DOD officials argued that 30 days was not enough time to produce this level of detail.

The difference is simple: Programs, projects, and activities are specific things, like F-35 fighters and Stryker vehicles and destroyers. The funding for these items is aggregated, and therefore buried, in broader accounts, like Air Force aircraft procurement, Army wheeled and tracked combat vehicles, and Navy shipbuilding. Instead of providing the program-level data, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) provided the account-level data, which doesn't tell you much about which programs would be affected or how. For example, the $34 billion defense health account faces a $3.3 billion reduction if sequestration happens. But how that $3.3 billion cut would be accommodated within that particular budget account is not specified.

Earlier this year, The American Legion passed a resolution that opposes any further cuts to the country’s defense budget.


House Minority Leadership Hold Veterans’ Roundtable

On September 13, Legislative staff met with House Democratic leadership and other veterans’ advocates for a roundtable discussion on veterans’ issues. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA) has hosted roundtables with the veterans’ community for the last few years, offering veterans’ advocates an opportunity to discuss ways in which Congress could work to better serve our veterans.

In the discussion, the Legion and others expressed frustration over upcoming budget sequestration cuts to the defense budget and administrative accounts for Veterans Affairs. [After this meeting the Administration clarified VA health care accounts were exempt from sequestration with the release of their congressional report on sequestration. But other veteran-related accounts are still subject to sequestration in the Departments of Defense and Labor, for two examples.]

House Budget Committee Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen (MD), explained that he and his fellow committee members were still searching for ways to avoid the Fiscal Year 2013 deadline when across-the-board cuts would have to take place. However, no changes were likely prior to the election.

Other issues raised during the roundtable were: the absence of advance appropriations in the VA budget continuing resolution (CR) now before Congress (passed the House on Wednesday, September 19 and awaiting Senate action), the unemployment numbers among Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans as well as veterans of prior conflicts, the never-ending and ever increasing disability compensation claims backlog, the president’s proposal to begin new or increase present TRICARE costs, and the lack of mental health resources for those veterans suffering from the invisible wounds of war.

House Veterans’ Affairs Panel Questions VA’s Performance

On September 20, Legislative staff attended the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing entitled Veterans Affairs in the 112th Congress: Reviewing VA’s Performance and Accountability. Members of the committee questioned Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on several programs including the perennially growing disability compensation claims backlog, mental health care, and oversight and stewardship of VA funding over the past two years of this session of Congress.

VA was questioned about its announcement earlier this year regarding the hiring of 1,600 additional mental health care professionals and 300 support staff which was in response to the VA’s Office of Inspector General report that said VA was not treating veterans in a timely manner. VA had a shortage of 1,500 mental health care providers nationwide at that time. Deputy Secretary Gould said VA was on track to fill all of those positions by the end of the calendar year plus fill current vacancies as well. Chairman Jeff Miller (FL) said, “Data continues to show that eighteen veterans per day commit suicide, and five of those were receiving VA care at the time of their death.” He went on to say, “As of mid-July, VA had hired less than 900 employees as part of this effort, and there seems to be confusion among [VA] officials as to what the goal is and when it will be reached. I have grave concerns about access to VA mental health care, which is clearly in crisis.”

Additional concerns expressed were whether monies spent on VA executive conferences were a good use of taxpayer dollars, especially as several conferences took place just months after a government shutdown was averted last year, and weeks before the country was at risk of defaulting on its obligations. “More than two weeks ago, the deadline I and Ranking Member [Bob] Filner [CA] set came and went without a response from VA to our basic questions regarding conference expenditures over the past three years and what actions have been undertaken since to safeguard veteran and taxpayer dollars. The Committee, and apparently VA, does not know.” Chairman Miller went on to say, “VA was, and, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, continues to be, tone-deaf to the fiscal difficulties this country is facing. I am extremely frustrated by VA’s lack of transparency, accountability, and stewardship of funding entrusted to its officials.”

None of the members questioning Mr. Gould were happy with his answers on the claims backlog.  He said it would be cured by 2015, that additional presumptive conditions was what was driving the higher number of claims to be processed now, that new information technology would move the system to a ‘paperless’ system and that would help. Representative Phil Roe (TN) said the VA needed to continue to find ways to allow claimants to find out the status of their claims as VA’s present system was not working for many of his constituents. Mr. Gould said there were many ways to check a claim, but he would review the situation. Representative Mike Michaud (ME) expressed concern that VA was nonresponsive to his request regarding the accuracy rates of VA claims adjudicators and how they are evaluated.



Hillsdale College Professor Discusses the Breakdown of the Family in American Society

Hillsdale College held an event Washington, DC on Thursday, September 20th, with Legion staff in attendance. Several distinguished academics were present as panelists, including Dr. Thomas West, professor of politics at Hillsdale. The discussion centered on the New Deal, and the subsequent rise of the welfare state in the United States. Dr. West made the case that the welfare state has been particularly harmful to the structure of American society given its detrimental impact on the family. The welfare state, he said, has provided a safety net through which the family has diminished in importance. Prior to the New Deal, families, which he, like The American Legion, considerers the fabric of society, were much more inclined toward staying together, given the financial instability which can result from their demise. Since the rise of the welfare state, however, individuals have less incentive to remain committed to their families, and the resulting effect of broken homes has been a detriment to American society in numerous ways, he said.

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 representative’s 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.