LEGION-RELATED LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS
Congress returned Tuesday, November 13, to face a crowded agenda. First, three new representatives were sworn in who will finish the remainder of terms for those House seats that were left open due to a representative’s death or resignation. These freshmen will thus have seniority over all the other freshmen who will be sworn in on January 3, when the 113th Congress officially begins.
The Senate must also direct its attention to avert sequestration, or defense spending faces a dramatic, automatic, across-the-board cut of $51 billion in fiscal year 2013, and $500 billion over ten years. The American Legion has lobbied both legislative bodies that such a steep reduction would cause severe, if not irreparable, harm to our national security. Some new spending decisions must be made to avert endangering the defense programs of our nation. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called the possibility of sequestration a “doomsday button.”
Congress must also address the “Doc Fix” bill to ensure doctors will be adequately reimbursed for treating Medicare and TRICARE patients. Failure to find an agreement on this issue would result in nearly a 30 percent reduction in payments to doctors.
And there are other issues that must fit into a short time period before the new year arrives, including passage of a Senate bill (S 3276) to extend authorities of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This measure is set to expire at year's end and is considered essential by US intelligence officials. Finally, the Stolen Valor Act is essentially complete and should be passed and sent to the President; otherwise the legislation dies with the end of the 112th Congress and must be re-introduced for action on January 3 with the swearing in of the 113th Congress.
Senate Approves Veterans’ COLA Bill, Goes to President
On November 13, the Senate passed by unanimous consent a bill – H.R. 4114 – to provide a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) of 1.7% for veterans. The traditionally non-controversial bill was held up in late September by an unnamed senator who subsequently removed the hold on this bill. The bill has already been passed by the House of Representatives so it now goes to the President for signature. The veterans COLA affects several benefits, including veterans’ service-connected disability compensation and dependency and indemnity compensation for surviving spouses and children. The government projects over 3.9 million veterans and survivors will receive compensation benefits in this fiscal year. The COLA is designed to offset inflation and other factors that lead to the rising cost of living over time. The COLA rate matches the annual increase provided to Social Security recipients and is based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index.
House Reviews Veterans Employment Challenges and Initiatives of the 112th Congress
On Thursday, November 15 the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity convened a hearing to discuss the continuing employment difficulties facing veterans and the programs to help them find work in a difficult economy. Legion staff was on hand to hear from the departments responsible, including the Departments of Labor (DOL) and VA. Overall veteran unemployment is 6.3 percent, representing about 689,000 individuals. For Post-9/11 veterans, unemployment was above the national average at 10 percent, or about 209,000 Americans.
A centerpiece of the committee’s work in the 112th Congress was passage of the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program as part of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act (Public Law 112-56). This new legislation addresses the lack of training opportunities for prior conflict and older veterans. As of November, VA had approved 62,295 applicants toward the 99,000 participant limit.
Delays in Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits processing were addressed, but VA noted that automated processing – initiated September 24 – is beginning to have some positive effect in that particular backlog. The problem is due, in part, to the success of the new GI Bill and to the poor economy and some veterans are electing to obtain further education as they are unable to find work. Since the program’s inception in August 2009, VA has issued over $23 billion in benefit payments to over 860,000 beneficiaries. During the 2012 fall academic term, VA received enrollments for over 470,000 participants attending institutions of higher learning, with another 9,200 beneficiaries enrolled in non-college degree programs.
Also discussed were various aspects of the transition and employment services provided to service members and veterans and how they could be improved to address current and future needs. About 300,000 service members will be separating from the military each year over the next 5 years, totaling approximately 1.5 million individuals who will be looking to start new careers in a challenging economic environment.
A webcast of the hearing and written testimony is available at the following link: http://veterans.house.gov/hearing/review-of-veterans-employment-challenges-and-initiatives-of-the-112th-congress
LEGISLATIVE DIVISION ACTIONS
Legion Staff Attend Labor Department “Salute to Veterans” Event
On Thursday, November 15, the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Veteran Employment and Training Service (VETS) held a Veterans Day 2012 Salute to Veterans panel discussion at the DOL building in Washington, DC. The event opened with welcoming remarks from Major Vincent Boncich, a military fellow at the Department of Labor, followed by a posting of the colors by the Joint Services Color Guard of the Military District of Washington, and a rendition of the National Anthem by the DOL Choir. Chaplin Pastor Bennett Gamble of the Office of Public Affairs was on hand to offer the invocation, followed by remarks from Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. Secretary Solis commended the military and all veterans, paying special tribute to the veterans who work for DOL and VETS.
Secretary Solis was followed by the main event, a panel discussion moderated by Ismael Ortiz, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for VETS. He was joined by: panelists Miguel Cumbo, a contract representative for DOL; Chauntay Green, a contract specialist with CACI Contracting; James Lander, National program manager for Goodwill Industries’ Veterans and Military Family Services; Chris Marvin, Director of the Got Your 6 Campaign; and Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, USAF (ret), President of the Board of Directors of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. All of the panelists are veterans and have gone on to successful careers after their military service. The panelists were given an opportunity to discuss a bit of their back stories, the ways in which DOL programs might have been of assistance to them, effective ways for veterans to find rewarding careers, and then to discuss what Veteran’s Day means to them.
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 37, with the addition of Sen. Thad Cochran (MS) this past Tuesday. To date, H.J. Res. 13 – the House companion bill to the Senate measure – has accumulated 90 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.