Time for Congress to put veterans funding first

For most of the past two decades, Congress has failed in its annual duty to approve the federal budget by the beginning of the new fiscal year, succeeding only four times.  Consistently late-arriving appropriations have led to poor planning, inefficient spending, and less effective delivery of VA’s medical services and benefits.  Unwilling to tolerate this status quo, Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and more than a dozen other veterans service organizations joined together to build a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and former VA officials to reform the veterans health care budget process; Congress now needs to do the same for veterans benefits programs.

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In October 2009, dozens of national veterans’ leaders joined President Obama at the White House as he signed the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act, legislation that shields the VA health care system from the harmful effects of budget stalemates, continuing resolutions and government shutdowns.  This historic law authorized advance appropriations for VA health care, providing the funding one year in advance and thus avoiding the ill effects of budget brinkmanship.  As a result, during a federal government shut down due to a lapse in appropriations or over a debt ceiling fight, the VA health care system already is funded to provide uninterrupted care to wounded, injured and ill veterans.

This key legislation was unanimously approved in the Senate, passed the House by a near-unanimous 409-1 margin, and was supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, including Majority Leader Reid (D), Minority Leader McConnell (R), Speaker Boehner (R) and Minority Leader Pelosi (D), and hundreds of others still serving now.

Unfortunately, the law did not protect other veterans’ benefits and services – including disability compensation, insurance, home loan guaranty and GI education support – from the uncertainty and disruptions caused by budget and debt ceiling battles.  Although the vast majority of VA employees will continue working during a shutdown, VA benefit programs, including vocational rehabilitation, education, employment, home loan guaranty, and burial, are all impacted by the broken process.  VA has said that even a short term shutdown would slow both the processing and delivery of earned benefits, including disability compensation payments made monthly to 3.8 million veterans, many of whom have no other sources of income.

To alleviate these problems, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Ranking Member Mike Michaud (D-Maine) introduced H.R. 813, the Putting Veterans Funding First Act, to extend advance appropriations to all VA discretionary accounts.  Senate companion legislation (S. 932) was introduced by Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and John Boozman (R-Ark.).  This legislation would align all of VA’s remaining discretionary programs and services, which comprise only 14 percent of VA’s total budget, with the same one-year advance appropriations cycle currently used for VA’s medical care accounts.  In addition, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has just introduced new legislation to ensure that mandatory funding for VA disability compensation checks and other earned benefits continue throughout any government shutdown this year.  Both these bills need to be brought up for immediate votes, passed and signed into law by the president.

Four years ago, Congress and the president came together to enact advance appropriations for VA health care.  Given the demonstrated success of advance appropriations for health care programs, and the continuing budget stalemates, Congress should vote to extend advance appropriations to all VA discretionary and mandatory programs.  It is time to change how Washington funds veterans benefits by putting veterans funding first.  America’s veterans deserve no less.

Augustine, a combat-wounded Vietnam veteran, is executive director of DAV’s National Service and Legislative Headquarters in Washington, D.C.