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Congressional Updates

Congress still faces a crowded agenda during this lame-duck session.

The House and Senate are still trying to negotiate a final deal to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff.” A number of plans to use increased taxation, budget cuts, and other processes have been advanced, but there has been no overall agreement to date.

 President Signs Veterans’ COLA Bill

On November 27, President Obama signed Public Law 112-198, legislation to provide a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) of 1.7% for eligible veterans and dependents. The traditionally non-controversial bill was held up in late September by an unnamed senator who subsequently removed the hold on this bill. 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.

Senate takes up 2013 Defense Authorization bill

This week the full Senate debated its version of the FY2013 Defense Authorization bill (NDAA), which is expected to wrap up Friday. The House version of the bill passed in May. Over 200 amendments are under consideration, although far fewer will end up as part of the final package. 

Several Legion supported amendments have been offered, but it is not yet clear whether they will be added to the NDAA yet. They include an amendment from Sen. Bill Nelson (FL) to eliminate the SBP/DIC offset.  His amendment would also restore SBP eligibility to widows who had previously transferred the earned benefit to one or more children. 

Sen. Jim Webb (VA), Sen. Scott Brown (MA) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (CT) introduced a new bipartisan, compromise Stolen Valor Act. The amendment clarifies that anyone who represents themselves as having been awarded any decoration, medal, ribbon or other device authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces for the purpose of tangible benefit or personal gain, may be fined or imprisoned or both. The Legion supported earlier bills by the senators which this new Act is based on.

Some potentially troubling amendments offered include one offered by John Cornyn, (TX), would require the VA secretary to submit a plan to Congress to reduce the current backlog of pending claims for veterans’ benefits.  The plan would require VA comment on a policy implemented in Texas using state employees to work with VA in developing claims. The American Legion opposes this use of state employees in the federal operations of VA. 

Additionally, Senators Jack Reed (RI) and Marco Rubio (FL) have offered an amendment that would increase copays for retail and mail-order prescriptions. The Reed-Rubio amendment would tie TRICARE copay increases to the cost of living adjustments for TRICARE beneficiaries. 

The Reed-Rubio amendment aims to protect military beneficiaries from excessive out-of-pocket increases in their co-payments. In brief, it would stop the steep out-of-pocket prescription drug costs planned by the Department of Defense for TRICARE beneficiaries. 

However, The American Legion has made it known that we hope there are no provisions contained within the NDAA that raise TRICARE fees and/or costs in any way.  The American Legion’s position is clear: we steadfastly oppose any degradation of veteran or retiree benefits in this, or any future policy or legislative acts.

White House Veto Threat

On Thursday, the White House threatened to veto the Senate NDAA unless some significant changes are made. A veto threat also hangs over the House version.

Among the White House’s objections was the Senate Armed Services Committee’s rejection earlier this year of an administration proposal to dramatically increase TRICARE fees and copayments.

Instead of the fee hikes proposed by the Pentagon, the committee’s plan would continue to cap TRICARE increases at no more than the cost-of-living adjustment in military retired pay, usually just a few percentage points, a compromise reached during last year’s consideration of the NDAA.

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget said that move would reduce potential savings by an estimated $1.8 billion in 2013 and $12.9 billion over the next five years. “DoD needs these savings to balance and maintain investments for key defense priorities,” the policy statement says.

The administration also “strongly objects” to proposed limitations in the Senate bill on closing or moving Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units. “These provisions would force DOD to operate, sustain, and maintain aircraft that are in excess to national security requirements, as defined by the new defense strategy, and are not affordable in an austere budget environment,” the statement says.

Also objected to is a provision that would require any percentage reduction in military personnel levels to be matched with cuts in the federal civilian and federal contractor workforces, a move made by the Senate committee to ensure service members are not singled out for cutbacks if budgets get tight.

The administration “believes the size of the civilian workforce should be determined based on workload and funding, not on arbitrary comparisons to the military. To comply with this legislation, the [Defense] Department would need to significantly divest workload and impose workforce caps,” the White House statement says.

House Panel Holds Contentious Hearing with Department of Veterans Affairs Officials

“The Truce is over,” declared Chairman Jeff Miller (FL), as he blasted VA’s Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould in a hearing on Wednesday, November 28 addressing VA overspending at training conferences. “It lasted less than 24 hours. Expect more oversight and investigation.” Miller concluded the hearing which had turned contentious after simmering on the edge of boiling for nearly two hours. At issue was overspending highlighted by two training conferences the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found to have totaled $6.1 million in outlays in Orlando, FL in 2011.

Chairman Miller began the hearing with polite but tightly-contained frustration, citing over 91 requests for information from VA over the past year, of which only 16 had been answered by the time of the hearing. Widescreen TVs at the hearing displayed the VA’s canteen services website showing photo albums of food and beaches on a trip to Italy. Despite requests for information on VA foreign travel that have gone unanswered, VA did later determine the photos were from an employee’s private vacation and while inappropriately placed on the VA website did not constitute any expenditure of taxpayer money, despite comments from an employee accompanying the pictures noting “research is hard but somebody’s got to do it.”

With regard to a request for clarification on an outstanding request for information over 106 days old, Deputy Secretary Gould further stated they could not provide information as to whether a contract for training in Hawaii totaling over $1 million was an open or closed bid contract. He also could not provide information as to how a training conference at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas in 2010 had been omitted from a complete report of all training conferences.

Representative Corrine Brown (FL), the committee’s Ranking Member, expressed a concern that VA officials were being overwhelmed with information requests and prevented from doing their actual work of running VA. She even advanced the notion that the amount of time VA has been forced to spend sending information to Congress was “ludicrous” although not all of her fellow Democrats shared that notion. Representative (and now newly-elected Senator for the 113th Congress) Joe Donnelly (IN) stated “I don’t consider it ludicrous; I consider it to be doing our job [of oversight].”

Rep. Tim Walz (MN) took a balanced approach, noting that nobody was saying VA should not be spending money on travel and training for their employees, but that there was room for oversight and clearly there were problems with the previous model. “An average Fortune 500 company spends $1,300 per employee for a training event,” Walz commented, “VA is spending an average of $3,300. That needs to be fixed.”

The closing clash between Miller and Gould stemmed from Gould’s accusation that aggressive comments from Rep. Bill Flores (TX) delivered a “slap to VA’s 320,000 hardworking employees.” Miller countered that neither he nor any member of the committee from either party had slapped any of the VA employees, but directed their ire and contempt towards VA’s leadership.

The hearing continued an ongoing battle between VA and the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee over requests for information that saw a unanimous vote of the HVAC to subpoena information from VA regarding pharmaceutical purchasing, after they had repeatedly failed to meet deadlines when dealing with the oversight requests from the committee.

House Leadership, Committee Chairmanships Unveiled

On Thursday, November 29 the House Republican Conference ratified the assignment of committee chairmen. It is expected subcommittee chairs will be announced by individual chairmen over the next week. In addition, the House leadership for the upcoming 113th Congress was also announced.

House Majority Leadership for the 113th Congress

Speaker of the House: John Boehner (OH)

Majority Leader: Eric Cantor (VA)

Majority Whip: Kevin McCarthy (CA)

Conference Chairman: Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA)

NRCC Chairman: Greg Walden (OR)

Policy Committee Chairman: James Lankford (OK)

Conference Vice-Chair: Lynn Jenkins (KS)

Conference Secretary: Virginia Foxx (NC)

Sophomore Representative: Tim Scott (SC)

Freshman Representative: Ann Wagner (MO)

Committee Chairmen

Agriculture: Frank Lucas (OK)

Appropriations: Hal Rogers (KY)

Armed Services: Howard “Buck” McKeon (CA)

Budget: Paul Ryan (WI)

Education and the Workforce: John Kline (MN)

Energy and Commerce: Fred Upton (MI)

Financial Services: Jeb Hensarling (TX)

Foreign Affairs: Ed Royce (CA)

Homeland Security: Mike McCaul (TX)

Intelligence: Mike Rogers (MI)

Judiciary: Bob Goodlatte (VA)

Natural Resources: Doc Hastings (WA)

Oversight and Government Reform: Darrell Issa (CA)

Rules: Pete Sessions (TX)

Science, Space, and Technology: Lamar Smith (TX)

Small Business: Sam Graves (MO)

Transportation and Infrastructure: Bill Shuster (PA)

Veterans’ Affairs: Jeff Miller (FL)

Ways and Means: Dave Camp (MI)

NOTE: Chairmanship selections for the House Administration and Ethics Committees will be announced at a later date.


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. To date, H.J. Res. 13 – the House companion bill to the Senate measure – has accumulated 91 cosponsors, with the recent addition of Rep. Doug Lamborn (CO).

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.