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Congressional Updates

Most House members will be in their districts from Thursday, December 6, until Tuesday, December 11, as Speaker John Boehner sent House members home Wednesday after a contentious meeting with his caucus on ‘fiscal cliff’ negotiations. Congress will not return to Washington for votes until 6:30 p.m. this coming Tuesday.

Republicans are divided over the offer made by their leaders — the Speaker, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan — to raise $800 billion in tax revenue by capping income tax credits and deductions while not raising tax rates. Speaker Boehner said he is going into a tough negotiation and he wants backing for whatever deal he brings back. This week he stripped four Republicans of their choice committee assignments because they did not back the party when they don’t get their way.

Currently, the budget deal is very fluid, but it appears to be shaping up as follows: Both parties are ready to “make a down payment on deficit reduction” but will defer any plan for fiscal stability to next year. This means it will be the 113th Congress, which will be sworn in on January 3, 2013, that will make that decision.

What would a “down payment” deal consist of? The President is sticking to his demand to raise tax rates on top income earners — he is willing to negotiate how much the rate increases will be. The President also proposed tax increases on capital gains, dividends, and estates as part of the negotiation.

On spending, the President claims he is ready to make cuts to entitlement programs and discretionary spending. However, the Republicans say these cuts ought to be twice the amount the President offered ($1.2 trillion rather than $600 billion), but the Republicans have not specified where they would cut. The President’s cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are already in his Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 budget request, so that request is his starting point for negotiations. It should be noted that any cuts to Medicare or Social Security will affect military retirees and service-connected disability compensation beneficiaries and their dependents as well.

Additionally, President Obama demanded about $200 billion in new “stimulus” measures for FY 2013. This package includes renewal of the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (which applies to eligible unemployed veterans) and other tax extenders, payroll tax relief, extended unemployment compensation, the so called “doc” fix, extensions of the child tax credit, and improvements in the earned income tax credit. These demands are all negotiable and may or may not be included in any budget deal. However, the $200 billion revenue loss lowers the total amount of deficit reduction in any budget deal and House leaders have expressed opposition to them.

Senate Passes FY 2013 NDAA, Conference Committee With the House Next Stop

On Tuesday, December 4 the full Senate wrapped up debate on that chamber’s version of the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization bill (NDAA). The measure was then passed by a vote of 98-0, the first time in 51 years that an NDAA bill had passed unanimously. The House passed its version of the bill, H.R. 4310, in May.

The measure authorizes $631 billion in spending for this country’s defense. It would provide some $526 billion for the base defense budget, $17 billion for defense programs in the Energy Department and about $88 billion for the war in Afghanistan. House and Senate negotiators must reconcile their competing versions of the bill in the next few weeks. The House bill provides about $3 billion more for DOD programs than the Senate version.

The Senate passed 145 amendments to the bill over five days of debate on the measure. Among those amendments were:

·         A new bipartisan, compromise Stolen Valor Act, introduced by out-going Sens. Jim Webb (VA), Scott Brown (MA) and Joe Lieberman (CT). The amendment clarifies that anyone who represents themselves for the purpose of tangible benefit or personal gain, as having been awarded any decoration, medal, ribbon or other device authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces may be fined or imprisoned or both. The Legion supported earlier bills by these senators, which were the basis of the NDAA amendment;

·         A requirement for the Pentagon to report to Congress on the ability of the U.S. military to impose a no-fly zone over Syria;

·         A provision restricting the president's authority to transfer terror suspects from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to foreign countries. The provision is in current law;

·         A provision restricting the transfer of detainees held at Guantanamo to prisons in the United States;

·         A provision stating the government may not detain a U.S. citizen or legal resident indefinitely without charge or trial, even if there is a declaration of war or the authorization to use military force;

·         An endorsement of the President’s timetable to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. However, the amendment pressed for a quicker pace, without specifying how that would be achieved. This amendment was passed by a strong bipartisan vote of 62-33;

·         Stringent new sanctions on Iran's energy and shipping sectors in a fresh attempt to hobble the Islamic Republic's economy and hamper its nuclear ambitions.

Program requests approved by the Senate include:

·         An across-the-board pay raise of 1.7 percent for all military personnel;

·         $9.1 billion for continued development of the F-35 fighter, including $6.1 billion for procurement of 29 of the planes;

·         Multi-year procurement of 10 additional DDG-51 (Arleigh Burke-class) destroyers;

·         Additional funding for procurement of a second Virginia-class attack submarine;

Because of various differences between the House and Senate versions of this bill – including House language addressing TRICARE – it will be necessary for a conference committee to iron out these differences, before it can be signed into law.

Current, Upcoming Changes to Membership of House VA Committee

On Monday, December 3 Representative Bob Filner (CA) was sworn in as the new mayor of San Diego, CA. Later in the day, he resigned from his seat in Congress, also vacating his position of Ranking Member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. His congressional seat will remain vacant until the beginning of the 113th Congress.

On Wednesday, it was announced the Rep. Mike Michaud (ME) would become the Ranking Member of the committee for the 113th Congress. “Mike has been a vocal advocate for America’s veterans and their families, and has been instrumental in the passage of several pieces of major legislation to uphold benefits earned through service to our nation,” said the committee chairman Jeff Miller (FL). “Mike has also been a leader, ensuring the Department of Veterans Affairs provides the best healthcare available. I look forward to working with Mike to address the major issues facing our veterans today, and ensuring the bipartisanship of the Committee continues in the 113th Congress.”

VA Records Challenges Addressed in Subcommittee Hearing

The Disability and Memorial Affairs (DAMA) Subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs Committee held an oversight hearing Tuesday afternoon, December 4th entitled “Wading through Warehouses of Paper: The Challenges of Transitioning Veterans Records to Paperless Technology.” The hearing explored the challenges faced by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as they move towards an entirely paperless office environment as the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) continues to roll out over the course of the coming year.

The American Legion’s Deputy Director for Claims Richard Dumancas delivered testimony on behalf of the Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation (VA&R) Division. Deputy Director Dumancas’ testimony centered on three chief concerns VA&R staff and resolutions have identified with the transformation to the electronic operating environment. The first concern centered on VA”s scanning process. VA&R staff have identified that at the Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) sites which deal with transitioning disabled service members, there is no current scanning contract in place, therefore claims may be backing up and presenting a future backlog. Getting accurate data into the system is critical for an operating environment designed to take advantage of technology’s ability to sift and process data. Alan Bozeman, VA’s Director of VBMS did speak to reassure the subcommittee that VA does have a scanning plan in place and is securing the necessary contracts to implement the plan and make sure the data flow is uninterrupted.

The second concern highlighted by Deputy Director Dumancas was the problematic data flow associated with records for members of the National Guard and Reserve components. The American Legion was the leading voice in addressing this concern. Despite over a decade of heavy reliance on Guard and Reserve service members to meet the security needs of the country, often these records are not centralized and can be spread over a half a dozen different locations or more. Further compounding matters is the necessity of sometimes using Guard/Reserve to fill active duty units and having those service members assigned piecemeal to larger units. In such situations, there is a lack of clarity as to who is custodian of the records for those service members, and the Guard/Reserve records are prone to becoming lost in the shuffle, which can be crippling to the chances for getting a claim for service connection of disabilities down the road. The American Legion called for greater haste to implement a Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record (VLER) between VA and DOD and to ensure that Guard and Reserve component records will be fully integrated into that system.

Finally, The American Legion noted that VA already has many regulations on the books which address missing or lost records, but the implementation of those rules at the Regional Office (RO) level is uneven. The Legion called on VA to increase training on topics such as these regulations, and to overall improve standardization across ROs to ensure a veteran receives the same high quality treatment for their claims regardless of where in the country they live.

Chairman John Runyan (NJ) noted assisting claimants obtain records is the statutory duty of the VA, and recognized that “Issues pertaining to the thoroughness of DOD’s record keeping have recently received media attention in light of evidence that some units were not properly documenting in-service events, such as combat-related incidents. This has been a source of significant frustration for many veterans who file claims with VA and are dependent on such documentation to substantiate their claims.”


Legion Staff Attends Politico Event

On Wednesday, December 5th, American Legion staff attended an event hosted by Politico at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Politico White House correspondent Mike Allen was on hand to interview author, journalist and pundit Bob Woodword, and Republican Senator Marco Rubio.

Woodward, who has covered Washington politics for the Washington Post since 1971, was questioned on the current state of American politics, including the so-called “fiscal cliff.” “Anyone who thinks they know what is going to happen is probably wrong” he said. When questioned about whether a failure to address the situation would be blamed on Republicans, he intimated that the answer was both yes and no. Yes, because in the very short term, it appears that the Republicans will bear the brunt of the blame, at least according to recent polls. That said, however, this era, from a future perspective, will still be viewed as the “Obama era”, and as such, the Democrats stand to lose in the long run. “I will give $100 to anyone who can tell me who the Speaker of the House was during FDR’s New Deal negotiations” he challenged. Hearing no takers, he gave the answer – Henry Thomas Rainey – to illustrate that it was FDR, not Rainey who history remembers, despite Rainey’s integral role in passing the New Deal legislation. Similarly, in generations to come, it is unlikely that John Boehner will be remembered in any strong sense. Obama will be much more likely to be remembered as responsible for any deal or lack thereof, according to Woodward.

Sen. Rubio joined Mr. Allen next. He began discussing the state of higher education: “The 21st Century higher education student is more diverse than in the past…we have to ensure that student aid programs do not get in the way [of what is best for today’s students]”. He proposed two major changes to facilitate this end. The first was major overhauls in accreditation, such that individual courses, rather than institutions are accredited, creating greater flexibility for students. The second was allowing greater access to information, allowing students to become more savvy consumers. 

Mr. Allen then asked Sen. Rubio about recent comments by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal about the Republican Party becoming known as the “Stupid Party”. Senator Rubio responded by noting that the Republican Party should be the party of conservatism, which is a political method aimed at applying tried and true principles in the 21st Century.

Sen. Rubio has also made something of a name for himself in the Republican Party on the issue of illegal immigration. As the son of legal Cuban immigrants, Senator Rubio has articulated a position favoring a guest worker program, and some kind of alternative to the DREAM Act (which would allow children of immigrants, brought to the United States as children, a path to citizenship). Asked by Mr. Allen about immigration reform, Senator Rubio reiterated his positions regarding immigration, and stated that the Republican Party needs to become the party of “legal immigration,” rather than the party of “anti-illegal immigration.” He suggested that the party should be out in front on reforming the system into one which facilitates immigration in a healthy and accessible manner.

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).  (66, 97, 272)

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.