By Alicia M. Cohn - 03/15/11 11:27 PM EDT
Nearly 20 groups that represent the 23 million veterans in the United States are scheduled to testify at joint hearings of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees on March 16 and 30.
“It’s pretty hard for the committees, when we have 50 or 60 guys sitting there in wheelchairs due to their military service, to be very critical of them,” said Doug Vollmer, associate executive director for government relations at Paralyzed Veterans of America.
Veterans Affairs is one of the few government departments not facing steep cuts. The president’s 2012 budget proposes $61.9 billion for the VA, an increase of $1.8 billion, and few Republicans have taken on veterans’ services in proposed cuts, despite claims that there are no sacred cows in the budget.
But the bipartisan support doesn’t necessarily mean that military benefits will be excluded from Washington’s austerity drive.
“We don’t want to be pawns in budget debates,” said René A. Campos, deputy director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America.
“The compassion of Congress is there,” said Vivianne Wersel, chairwoman of government relations at Gold Star Wives of America. “When we testify, they’re very kind. They echo our sentiments, and they back us up by being co-sponsors, but when it’s said and done at the end of the day, it’s not our turn [for funding]. But we’ve been told that for many years.”
The VSOs have a number of issues they plan to raise with lawmakers during their visits. Many are concerned about discrepancies in benefits for veterans and their caregivers and want to ensure that the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act — signed into law by President Obama last year — is fully implemented.
Others are concerned about the president’s proposed reduction in spending for construction and non-recurring maintenance in VA funding research. Several are concerned that cuts to the information technology budget will undermine the effort to streamline the exchange of electronic medical records between the Department of Defense and VA systems.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), meanwhile, will focus on getting veterans jobs this year.
“We have a high national unemployment rate, but we have a much higher veterans unemployment rate. It’s typically about two points higher,” said Tom Tarantino, senior legislative associate for IAVA.
The organization wants Congress to request a report from the private sector, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, unions and others who “understand the market” to find solutions to the problem.
There is also support among VSOs for increased oversight of the VA, so long as the focus is on waste and not reducing benefits.
“We want to keep what we’ve got,” said Hershel Gober, legislative director for the Military Order of the Purple Heart. “We are in strong support of going after all the waste, fraud and abuse that we can find. I really believe if we do that across the government, we’ll find enough waste, fraud and abuse that we won’t have to take benefits away from veterans.”
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has called for increased oversight of the VA department. “I think we need to focus not only on delivery of services but the cost at which those services are being delivered to the veteran,” Miller said.
Many VSOs welcomed the call for transparency. “If it’s done with an eye to improving benefits and services for veterans, it’s hard not to be supportive of that,” said Vollmer. “If it’s just an artifice to dig into this particular administration or particular programs, that’s not really good oversight; that’s just plain politics.”
VSOs scheduled to testify at Wednesday’s hearing include AMVETS, the Jewish War Veterans, the Non-Commissioned Officers Association and the Fleet Reserve Association. The Vietnam Veterans of America, the American Ex-Prisoners of War, the Retired Enlisted Association, the Air Force Sergeants Association, the Wounded Warrior Project and the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs will testify March 30.
Two other large veterans organizations testified before the committees earlier this month: the Veterans of Foreign Wars on March 8 and the Disabled American Veterans on March 1.
“We all know we’re much stronger when we work together,” Tarantino said of the groups descending on Congress in the next two weeks.