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VA opposes shutdown protection only for itself

Oct. 30, 2013 - 12:31PM   |  
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A politically popular proposal to protect all veterans programs from harm during future government shutdowns is meeting opposition from an unexpected source: the Veterans Affairs Department.

But VA’s opposition might not matter.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee passed bipartisan legislation in August to create a two-year discretionary budget for veterans programs to prevent disruption if Congress does not pass a VA budget by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who heads the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said Wednesday that his committee will pass similar but even more expansive legislation in November that would protect not just discretionary spending for things like benefits processing, information technology and cemetery programs but would also provides advance funding for benefits, paid with what is known as mandatory funding.

“Failure to pay mandatory benefits would be a disaster,” Sanders said. “As we saw this month, in the event of a prolonged shutdown, VA would not have been able to issue disability compensation, pension payments or education benefits. The veterans community is not particularly wealthy. Many of them depend on these benefits to feed themselves and their families, to pay their rent and to make ends meet.”

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, said advance funding for veterans programs “is not something new” because it has been used to prevent past disruption in veterans health care programs.

But Miller agreed that it’s time to expand advance funding because Congress is “increasingly unable” to pass veterans’ budgets on time and veterans shouldn’t have to worry about their programs. “We need to have some consistency in the veterans’ budget,” he said.

Major veterans organizations also support advance funding for all veterans programs.

But VA said Wednesday it does not back the legislation.

“Rather than focusing on expanding advance appropriations, the best way to care for veterans is for Congress to provide full funding for VA and the entire government each year,” VA said in a statement.

Part of the opposition stems from the fact that veterans depend on programs administered by other federal agencies that would not be protected from a shutdown.

“Without budgets for other agencies, VA is significantly less effective in serving our veterans, service members, their families, and survivors,” the statement says. It cites the Defense Department, labor and housing programs and the Social Security Administration and Internal Revenue Service, which are involved in approval of income-based benefits, as agencies that play a role in veterans’ lives.

The statement acknowledges that advance funding has protected veterans’ medical programs from disruptions but does not support going further. “The budget request submitted by President Obama was the result of an extensive, cooperative, synchronized effort across the federal government to produce a budget that coherently balances priorities and risks,” the statement says.

Miller said one of the reasons for protecting the veterans programs is to prevent veterans from becoming “political pawns” in budget fights.

But placing veterans’ programs in peril is viewed as a strong incentive to reach agreement. For example, the threat in mid-October that veterans might not be paid on Nov. 1 helped broker a short-term agreement to reopen the government after 17 days of being partially shuttered.

Major military veterans’ groups share Miller’s view about keeping veterans out of the line of fire in political fights. In joint letters sent to Obama and congressional leaders, they express concern that veterans’ hospitals and clinics were kept open during the shutdown while other programs were “delayed, disrupted and suspended.” That included a work stoppage on about 250,000 disability claims that were awaiting appeal, according to the letters.

Advance funding is a “commonsense legislative remedy that would insulate VA and veterans from the harmful effects of future shutdowns or even temporary continuing resolutions,” the letters say. “It is time to change how Washington pays for veterans programs by putting veterans funding first. America’s veterans deserve no less.”

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