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"Snowquester" Update

The Washington DC Metropolitan area experienced a late season snowfall, particularly in the western counties which led to the shutdown of the federal government on Wednesday, March 6th and the cancellation of a number of events on the following day. The winter weather event was dubbed "Snowquestration" in light of the current budget battles engrossing Capitol Hill and the public dialogue in Washington. Two congressional hearings The American Legion was scheduled to testify before had to be postponed until later dates.

American Legion Field Service Representative Roscoe Butler was scheduled to testify before the Oversight and Investigations (O&I) Subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs (HVAC) on the topic of patient wait times for appointments in the VA health care system. The hearing, originally scheduled for Wednesday afternoon on the 6th has been rescheduled to March 14, 2013.

Economics Division Assistant Director Davy Leghorn was set to testify Thursday March 7th before a joint hearing of the O&I Subcommittee and the Small Business Committee Subcommittee on Contracting and the Workforce regarding challenges for service disabled veteran owned small businesses. That hearing was also postponed due to inclement weather, however a follow up date has not yet been set.

The Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs (DAMA) of HVAC also postponed a hearing to hear an update on activities of the National Cemetery Administration from NCA officials.

Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 Continuing Resolution (CR) Update

With two and a half weeks to go before the current CR ends (March 27), the House passed HR 933 by a vote of 267-151 on Wednesday, March 6. The bill keeps the government operating for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends September 30. The new CR does not eliminate sequester reductions, but it does take steps to affect some cuts a little by providing flexibility to move monies to other accounts. HR 933 includes a number of House priorities, including additional funding for embassy security and provisions for launching new weather satellites. It maintains the same level of funding as the existing CR for most of the government, except for DoD and VA which are further explained below. In the wake of last week’s release of illegal immigrants to save money, the bill requires that Immigration and Customs Enforcement sustain 34,000 detention beds. The legislation continues the pay freeze for federal employees, including Members of Congress.

Included in the bill are full-year Defense and Military Construction/VA appropriations bills. They are based on the bills considered in the last Congress. House appropriators said these provisions have been agreed to, in large part, by the Senate. Including this legislation in the broader CR gives DoD more flexibility in how it can spend its money, however, DoD is still subject to the sequester.

After the vote the House adjourned until next week so Members could go home in the middle of the snowstorm called "snowquestration".

Department of Defense (DoD)

DoD appropriations include $518.1 billion in the base budget and $87.2 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations. The base budget is $2 billion above the President’s request. Defense spending includes:

Health: $32.7 billion for DoD health and family programs, including $135 million for TBI and psychological health research. Overall, the legislation includes $1,308,377,000 for health care research. The legislation prohibits DoD from implementing new TRICARE enrollment fees and limits how much money can be transferred into private sector care.

Personnel: $127.5 billion for military personnel and pay accounts, including a 1.7% pay raise for uniformed personnel. The funding is $3.6 billion below FY 2012 (due to the reduction in authorized end strength previously announced).

Operation and maintenance: $173.5 billion ($1.4 billion below the President’s request).

Research and Development: $70 billion; although $2.5 billion below last year’s spending level, it is still $521 million above the President’s request.

Procurement: $100.4 billion.

Military construction: $10.6 billion ($927 million is to military medical treatment facilities).

According to the House Committee on Appropriations, savings were found in a number of ways, including $4 billion in rescissions of unused prior-year funding, $515 million for unjustified Army growth funding, and $500 million for excess inventory of spare parts and secondary items.

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

VA appropriations include $133.9 billion for operations; of $61 billion in discretionary funding, $52 billion was provided through advance funding last fiscal year. VA Medical Services will receive $53.3 billion for FY 2013 and $54.5 billion in advance funding for FY 2014. There is $608 million for minor construction (includes both health care and cemetery facilities).

Due to the House Appropriations Committee’s frustration with VA’s operations, the bill includes provisions requiring VA to report on how it is spending money on construction projects and forbids changes in the scope of those projects.

The bill now goes to the Senate for action.


Senate Legislative Roundtable

Legislative Division staff met with Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (SVAC) staff as well as key staff from several other Veteran Service Organizations to discuss VA’s progress with the transformation of the claims benefit system. As VA transitions to the paperless environment of the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) throughout the year, the operational procedures are being changed in the regional offices to better support the new system. The SVAC staff was collecting preliminary information about how that transformation is taking place in the field in advance of a hearing next Wednesday on VA’s current operating status regarding the claims system.

In terms of positives, The American Legion noted the success of VA’s efforts to increase the speed of processing for "fully developed claims", claims that have much of the material provided in advance by the veteran, usually in conjunction with a skilled service officer from an organization such as The American Legion. Average processing time for these fully developed claims is down to approximately 120 days, which falls under Secretary Shinseki’s stated goal of no claim taking longer than 125 days to process. Other organizations praised VA’s commitment to the digital process, and their receptiveness to input from service organizations. Throughout the process they have been more open to outside input than at any time in the past.

Still problematic for the Legion and the other organizations are inherent cultural issues within the VA offices. Absent clear direction otherwise, the attention to detail necessary to get claims done right the first time is consistently a problem with VA staff. There is still far too much variation in implementation of policies and a lack of commitment to training on a regional level. No matter the intent of VA’s central office, if the regional offices don’t place priority on consistency, it doesn’t happen.

Possible legislative fixes varied. When cultural problems exist, for example getting VA employees to execute their job according to all of the current statutes, it is difficult to find a way to legislate the employees into compliance. However, The American Legion argues that VA must change the way they count work credit to produce a change in the behavior of the employees. As it stands now, VA employees receive the same credit for work regardless of whether or not the claim is decided accurately. With no negative credit, there is little incentive to get the claim correct, and all of the incentive is to turn out raw numbers. The Legion argues that by implementing a work credit system that takes into account not only positive credit for completion of a claim, but also negative credit for claims found to be processed in error, employees would have incentive to work not only swiftly, but also carefully. By avoiding errors, lengthy appeals would be eliminated from the system and the backlog would be reduced.

The SVAC staff intends to hold quarterly meetings with the service organizations to stay abreast of developments as VA completes the final year of roll out of the VBMS processing environment. [Resolution #118-2012]

Military and Caregivers’ Luncheon

Legislative staff attended a luncheon of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, Caring for Military Families regarding the caregivers for veterans and wounded active duty service members. The luncheon, entitled "Empowering America’s Hidden Heroes" featured presentations from Vice Admiral James A. Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and from Michael Rich, CEO and Terri Tanieleian, Senior Social Research Analyst of the RAND Corporation.

The topics covered not only the estimated one million family members and loved ones who provide first line care to injured service members and veterans, but also improvements to aid and attendance benefits, external aids to in need veterans such as the Veteran Treatment Courts, and other topics in line with positions advocated by Legion resolutions. [Resolutions #47, #119, #285-2012]

American Legion Legislative Council

The Legislative Division continues the task of re-building the membership of the National Legislative Council for the 113th Congress. Council recommendation forms were emailed to Department leadership in December, asking for nominations for new congressional members. Completed forms were due in the Legislative Division offices in Washington, DC by January 18. To date, 43 Departments have returned their Council nomination forms.

The importance of the Legislative Council cannot be overstated. It is an especially important voice for The American Legion family, and the way in which members of Congress can be quickly contacted when legislative action is needed. Departments are urged to complete their nomination forms and return them to the Legislative Division offices as soon as possible.

Update on Flag Amendment Bill

On January 18, House Joint Resolution (H.J. Res.) 19 was introduced by Representative Jo Ann Emerson (MO). This legislation is 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 next task is finding cosponsors for this legislation. Please contact the offices of your representative and senators, and ask them to become cosponsors of the flag amendment in their respective chambers. [Res. 272-2012]