Steve's Soapbox

Friday, November 11, 2005

Veterans Day Outrage...... 2005/ 11/ 10/ veterans-day-outrage/ trackback/

Veterans Day Outrage: Conservatives End 55-Year-Old Practice of Hearings for Vet Groups

On Tuesday — three days before Veterans Day — House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer (R-IN) announced that for the first time in at least 55 years, “veterans service organizations will no longer have the opportunity to present testimony before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees.”
Remember that Buyer was handpicked by criminally-indicted Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) to replace former veterans committee chairman Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), who had been extremely vocal about the consistent underfunding of veterans causes.
The Disabled American Veterans, the “official voice of America’s service-connected disabled veterans,” just issued a scathing release calling the move “an insult to all who have fought, sacrificed and died to defend the Constitution.” The timing, they said, “could not have been worse.”
Read the full release here. (More from The Hill.)

Department of veterans affairs
Vets lash out at House over budget moves
By Elana Schor
As Veterans Day approaches and the war in Iraq rages on, veterans-service organizations are criticizing House leaders for ending a 55-year legislative tradition, and fearing that Congress will not fill next year’s budget gap for veterans healthcare.
Senators erupted in frustration earlier this year after Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Jim Nicholson conceded that the department was more than $1 billion short for 2005. They will get a chance to vent again today when Nicholson appears before the Veterans Affairs Committee at a hearing on VA hospitals damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
But lobbyists for veterans groups are most incensed at Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), the new House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman, who announced Tuesday that the groups would no longer have the opportunity to make legislative recommendations at joint House-Senate hearings.
“We think it’s an absolutely abhorrent idea. These things were initiated somewhere around 1950, and they represent a crowning moment for our grassroots membership,” said Dennis Cullinan, national legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
Buyer is replacing the joint hearings with a February series in which veterans groups would outline their budget priorities just as the White House finishes sending its budget request to Congress. In the past, that series of budget hearings has been held in March, after lobbyists for veterans groups have fully examined the president’s request.
The lobbyists dismissed Buyer’s explanation that the earlier hearings would allow their groups greater influence on the VA’s annual budget. The chairman, the lobbyists charge, is seeking to avoid the public-relations headache of having disappointed veterans groups repeatedly blasting the White House budget.
“Some people don’t want to be criticized for being deficient,” said Richard Fuller, legislative director for Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA). “What they want to do is get rid of these [joint] legislative presentations because they have become, unfortunately now in the climate on Capitol Hill, very partisan.”
Brooke Alexander, spokeswoman for Buyer’s committee, said low attendance at the joint hearings prompted a reorganization of the schedule.
“The current process is not as constructive as it could be. The [veterans groups] and their membership will still be coming to the Hill for spring conferences where they meet with members,” Alexander said.
Senate Veterans Affairs spokesman Jeff Schrade defended the earlier hearings, adding that committee Chairman Larry Craig (R-Idaho) would consider inviting House members to his own hearings if necessary.
“Meeting with them early in the budget process will probably be helpful, but whether we meet jointly with the House or not, the veterans of America will be heard,” Schrade said.
The veterans-healthcare shortfalls that left many lawmakers disappointed this summer, meanwhile, has yet to be resolved. The House’s VA healthcare budget for 2006 is billions of dollars less than the Senate’s, which was negotiated after Nicholson acknowledged the deficit.
The chambers have until Nov. 18 to resolve the two bills into one in conference, and press reports of a $1.2 billion compromise figure — nearly $700 million short of the Senate’s larger emergency infusion — have alarmed veterans lobbyists.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who declared victory in press releases after successfully attaching $1.5 billion in extra 2005 VA funding to the Senate’s interior appropriations bill, warned that veterans are on the verge of being deprived again.
“Veterans had a victory in July, but that victory is about to be snatched away because no one is watching,” Murray said. “The Senate allocation is the number that should be sent to President Bush for his signature. Every dollar below that Senate level is a dollar taken away from a veteran.”
Murray said yesterday that the VA had saved $1 billion of her 2005 emergency funding and carried it over to 2006. That money could be used during conference negotiations to justify lowering the healthcare budget. But lobbyists for veterans groups were puzzled by the shift.
“It seems odd to us that suddenly they would be able to carry over [money] when it was clear that the whole $1.5 billion was needed for 2005,” Cullinan said.
The Independent Budget group, a coalition of veterans service organizations that issues its own VA budget proposal to Congress each year, wrote to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) last week, urging him to meet the Senate’s healthcare numbers.
“We believe that the House-passed appropriations figure, approved last spring, does not begin to approach the amount needed by the VA,” wrote the VFW, AMVETS, PVA and Disabled American Veterans (DAV).
Though veterans groups have received assurances from House and Senate leaders that their healthcare would be exempted from any across-the-board budget cuts mandated by budget reconciliation, lobbyists were dismayed at the likelihood that the VA will end up with too little for 2006.
“I wish I could be confident that the Senate will stay at their higher number, but I just don’t know,” said Joe Violante, national legislative director for the DAV.