Mark Takano keeps using partisan tactics when legislating veterans issues

Mark Takano keeps using partisan tactics when legislating veterans issues
© Stefani Reynolds

Shortly after the 2018 midterm elections, which determined that the U.S. House of Representatives would flip from a Republican to Democratic majority, I asked a respected colleague what they thought the impact of the change of control might mean for the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee (HVAC). “Mark TakanoMark Allan TakanoMark Takano keeps using partisan tactics when legislating veterans issues Hillicon Valley: Google buying Fitbit for .1B | US launches national security review of TikTok | Twitter shakes up fight over political ads | Dems push committee on 'revenge porn' law Progressives urge end to mass phone data collection program MORE (D-Calif.) is not politically neutral enough to be successful in the role of HVAC Chair,” the colleague responded, with what has since proven to be remarkable clairvoyance.  

This response was intriguing, as HVAC is generally considered one of the most cordial and bipartisan committees in Congress. Whatever partisan beliefs committee members may have held with regard to other issues, those beliefs were usually checked at the door when they entered the HVAC hearing room.

Despite this initial observation, I, like many who work on veterans issues, had high hopes that Chairman Takano would follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. Whatever his politics, he would surely continue the tradition of conducting HVAC-related business in a politically-neutral and bipartisan manner. Afterall, if Congress can’t find bipartisan support for veterans issues, it certainly did not bode well for other policy areas. 

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Of course, this is 2019, and unfortunately, everything is political, including the business of HVAC. The issue came to a head last month when Republican members of HVAC stormed out of a routine markup after being denied the opportunity to bring up amendments to one of the pending pieces of legislation, and were repeatedly gaveled down when trying to make parliamentary inquiries. 

Although Takano subsequently accused the Republican members of trying to add “toxic, partisan amendments” that were unrelated to the legislation at issue, Takano’s statement ignores the realities of how markups typically work. 

First, as the majority party, Takano presumably has the ability to vote down whatever amendments are raised. Knowing that you have this majority but denying the minority party the opportunity to speak looks quite petty. 

Indeed, Ranking Member Phil RoeDavid (Phil) Phillip RoeIsraeli, Palestinian business leaders seek Trump boost for investment project Mark Takano keeps using partisan tactics when legislating veterans issues Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Dole call for national unity at Heroes and History Makers event MORE (R-Tenn.) referred to this as “Soviet-style tactics” and that he was “embarrassed to be on the committee that day. 

Similarly, Joe Chenelly, the executive director of AMVETS who was at the markup, stated afterwards that “politics is playing an unwelcome role on the congressional committee designed to serve those who have worn the uniform,” referring to Takano’s strategy as “a head-scratching move, stumping the casual observer,” and ultimately concluding that when lawmakers choose to participate in “a partisan circus” it is ultimately “veterans who suffer.”

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Second, in the interest of efficiency, legislation marked up through HVAC is often combined with several other, often unrelated pieces of legislation. For example, the VA MISSION Act, which most are familiar with based on its provisions related to expansion of community health care — spans 89 pages and has sections on veterans education, training, home loans, “and for other purposes” that touch on many subject areas beyond community care. To reiterate, joining standalone pieces of legislation into one consolidated legislative package is standard operating procedure for both this Committee and others. 

The legislation at issue during that markup, the Improve Well-Being for Veterans Act, was the subject of yet another controversial and partisan-themed HVAC hearing earlier this week. The legislation would provide federal grants to community-based, non-VA entities that offer suicide prevention services, particularly to veterans who are not enrolled in VA health care or live in rural areas.  

At today’s hearing, Blake Bourne, the executive director of Veterans Bridge Home, a North Carolina-based organization that performs this type of work and would potentially benefit from this type of funding, testified that “the language and financial support in [this] draft would allow[ ] us to increase our capacity to address the needs of veterans and manage the relationships with providers, thus increasing efficiency and improving outcomes by working on both sides of the equation.” 

Similarly, Secretary Wilkie testified that “this is not an attempt to circumvent VA health care.  This is an attempt to triage on the streets, and in our rural areas, to help us find those veterans we cannot touch.” 

Despite the desire from both stakeholders in the non-profit and VSO communities, as well as VA, to see progress on this legislation, Chairman Takano launched into terse and partisan questioning of Secretary Wilkie, interrupting him often and even going so far as to accuse him of misusing VA funds by lobbying Congress because he urged lawmakers to support the bill.  

Wilkie, keeping his cool, responded only that he was trying to push for solutions, not to pick fights. 

Chairman Takano should be embarrassed by his frequent use of partisan tactics to control debates over needed legislation in the veterans community. Unfortunately, as Takano succumbs to impeachment fever and resorts to tactics more suited for the House Intelligence Committee — our nation’s veterans are dying. 

As succinctly summarized by Chenelly after the October markup debacle: 

“If the current committee leadership and its staff cannot get the job done without all the unproductive drama we’re now witnessing, it’ll be time for a curtain call and a new case of leaders with character to do the job of fulfilling our nation’s promise to her veterans.”

Unfortunately, that time has come.  

Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.