Overloaded vets bill would be a costly letdown

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One lesson Washington politicians seem unable to learn is that sweeping “comprehensive” solutions to problems rarely deliver on their lofty promises while typically creating a whole class of new problems.

The botched ObamaCare rollout is a textbook illustration of that principle, and there are scores of other examples. Yet our political class just can’t resist massive “comprehensive” projects, even when those efforts invariably lead to unforeseen costs, unintended consequences and unsurprising disappointments.

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Such is the case with the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014 (S.1950), a new omnibus veterans bill recently introduced in Congress.

The name alone suggests “overpromising,” an assessment borne out in a review of the bill’s provisions. This 352-page bill, jampacked with fine-sounding and well-intended proposals, is bound to introduce more problems to an already deeply dysfunctional system of veterans services at a high cost.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, explains the rationale for the omnibus bill by noting that members of the military “have paid a very, very high price for their service ... we have to do everything possible to give back to them and their families.”

It’s reassuring to hear a member of Congress state so unequivocally that we owe a tremendous debt to our veterans and service members, and I don’t doubt Sanders’s commitment to them. But alas, the devil is in the details, and the details of Sanders’s bill should send up red flags to those who care about defense policy and veterans affairs.

The omnibus bill reads like a veterans advocacy group’s wish list: it would vastly expand veterans’ healthcare, strengthen the post-9/11 GI Bill, boost treatment for military sexual assault victims, require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to report to Congress on progress on cutting the claims backlog, expand dental services, restore cuts to military pensions and much, much more. These are, of course, laudable promises, and Concerned Veterans of America (CVA) fully supports restoring cuts to military pensions.

But given the vast scope of this bill, we should be skeptical. In recent years, the VA, which will take on a wide range of expanded responsibilities should this bill become law, has come under fire for dysfunctional management and poor service to veterans. If the VA is already failing to meet its obligations to veterans, is it wise to extend its mission even further? Of course not. And while we need to restore the shortsighted cuts to military pensions, there are more narrow ways to address these cuts, such as Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s (R-N.H.) military pensions bill, S.1977.

It’s troubling that under this bill, VA services would be expanded far beyond veterans with combat injuries and service-connected disabilities, fundamentally changing the founding mission of VA. This will only flood the VA system with new claimants, many of whom would be better served by health coverage in the private insurance market.

Veterans seeking VA care already face wait times of months and even years; further expanding eligibility to veterans who would be better served by other healthcare options will only stretch the VA to its breaking point. There is also currently no cost estimate of this massive expansion.

Meanwhile, there is another compelling question of cost. Sanders has proposed shifting funding from the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations to pay for these expanded veterans priorities. But taking funding from the men and women serving in Afghanistan and elsewhere is shortsighted and could endanger lives. That approach will likely meet a chilly reception in the House of Representatives, and justifiably so.

This means that Sanders’s $30 billion bill would be paid for through the accumulation of additional debt. The CVA has been clear that Washington needs to “cut debt, not vets.” With $17 trillion in debt and massive annual deficits, our country faces a fiscal crisis of unparalleled scope. Now is not the time, in any federal department, to spend money we don’t have.

To be sure, there’s much to like in the Sanders bill. And if those components were presented as separate, smaller bills, as part of a carefully considered long-term strategy to reform the VA, hold leadership accountable and improve services to veterans, we would have no problem extending our enthusiastic support.

Many of our brethren in the veterans advocacy community see the bill differently and endorsed it immediately, save American Veterans (AMVETS), which has joined us in opposition. My concern is that our Veterans Service Organizations allies are failing to consider the reality that while this bill is stuffed full of swell-sounding promises, the government’s track record at delivering on those promises in recent years has been discouraging, to say the least.

As with so many bloated legislative projects in today’s Washington, the overreaching and overpromising in this bill will only lead to disappointment and recriminations as the high costs and unanticipated consequences are revealed. That will be followed by demands for an entirely new round of “comprehensive” reform, and the cycle will begin anew. 

Congress should go back to the drawing board, assume a more modest approach and take up these proposals on an individual basis. That’s the better path to achieving enduring and effective reform of, and accountability for, the services we provide to our veterans.

Hegseth is CEO of Concerned Veterans for America. He is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and at Guantánamo Bay.