By Elana Schor - 11/17/05 12:00 AM EST
Democrats on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee are openly rebelling against Chairman Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) over his cancellation of Congress’s annual joint hearings with veterans groups, spurring lawmakers and lobbyists to consider breakaway hearings of their own.
Senate veterans committees every winter since the 1950s, and VSOs consider the hearings a prized tradition of dialogue with both chambers on the White House veterans affairs (VA) budget. But Buyer abruptly ended the tradition last week during a “veterans summit” meeting from which two top VSOs were conspicuously absent.
Democrats on Buyer’s committee responded this week with a strongly worded letter, asking the chairman to reinstate the annual joint hearings or risk the embarrassment of hearings led by the minority.
“While it is not clear how you could unilaterally abolish this series of joint hearings with the Senate, you are certainly within the purview to withdraw yourself from such hearings and discourage your majority colleagues from participation,” the Democrats wrote.
Majority staffers on the committee spent several hours yesterday in closed-door negotiations with their Democratic counterparts, attempting to reach a compromise that would avert further political damage.
The turmoil on the House veterans affairs panel comes as Buyer approaches his one-year anniversary at the committee’s helm. Leadership abruptly removed Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) from the chairmanship in January, aggravated by Smith’s outspoken advocacy for greater veterans funding.
Rep. Lane Evans (Ill.), ranking Democrat on Veterans’ Affairs, said he would fight to preserve the hearings in their current form.
“Chairman Buyer did not consult or even inform me before he terminated these hearings. It’s not clear if he even consulted his own Republican members,” Evans said in an e-mail. “What is clear is that it was the wrong decision.”
Democrats have also written to Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), that committee’s top Democrat, asking that senators take the lead in salvaging the joint hearings. Under Buyer’s proposal, the chambers would hear from VSOs separately before Congress receives the president’s budget request, a change that veterans lobbyists say would prevent them from making informed comment on VA budget realities.
Craig said he would ensure that the VSOs receive an appropriate level of access to Congress and charged Democrats with politicizing veterans issues in an effort to tar Republicans as uncaring.
Craig acknowledged, however, that he did not agree with Buyer’s bid to cancel the joint hearings.
“He and I differ a little bit on this issue. … I did not join him in what he proposed,” Craig said. “At the same time, I don’t disagree with him that as we move forward, there is a way to do it better.”
In recent letters to Buyer, the national commanders of leading VSOs have hinted that the chairman is using his post to disenfranchise and silence veterans during a time of war. Veterans leaders also took Buyer to task for his Nov. 7 “veterans summit” at the Army War College’s which allowed only 90 minutes for issues amid a field trip and battlefield tour.
Thomas Bock, head of the American Legion, the largest U.S. veterans group, did not receive an invitation to Buyer’s summit. The Legion was told that the invitation was mistakenly sent to a previous commander, according to the Legion’s legislative director, Steve Robertson.
When Buyer wrote a letter to Bock noting that “it was unfortunate that the American Legion chose not to send a representative,” Bock fired back.
“We will not be talked down to, lectured or treated as if we were superfluous,” Bock wrote, adding that “a modicum of respect is owed” to VSOs and “precious little was paid” by the chairman.
Robertson said the Legion would attend any Democratic-led joint veterans hearing and vowed to hold VSO-led hearings if Congress does not reinstitute the forum for veterans.
“Basically, [Buyer] is saying that all of our hearings have been irrelevant,” Robertson said. “We will schedule our own hearings … but that’s not how the democratic process is supposed to work.