Flanked by veterans advocates, Disabled American Veterans national commander Joseph Johnston spoke about the need for advance appropriations for all Department of Veterans Affairs accounts on Tuesday at a Capitol Hill rally. (Leo Shane III / Military Times)
Despite a budget detente on Capitol Hill, veterans advocates are worried about what another government shutdown could do to Veterans Affairs Department benefits checks and assistance programs.
So this week, as they lobby lawmakers on Capitol Hill, members of the Disabled American Veterans have made advanced appropriations for all VA accounts their top legislative priority.
They argue the “Putting Veterans Funding First” Act is needed to ensure veterans’ assistance efforts aren’t disrupted by future political squabbles.
“The federal budget and appropriations process is broken,” Joseph Johnston, DAV national commander, told lawmakers Tuesday. “We shouldn’t let our disabled veterans be affected by that.”
Already, about 85 percent of VA funding is provided a year in advance. Congress approved that plan in 2009, when advocates argued the VA health system needed more stability in funding for staffing, services and research programs even when lawmakers failed to pass a timely budget.
After the October government shutdown — when VA officials reported they were just a few days away from halting a number of veterans’ benefits checks — advocacy groups pushed for a full advance budget, giving every section of the department a year’s worth of cushion to protect against political fights.
Since then, the plan has gained bipartisan support from lawmakers. On Tuesday, Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, senior Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee member Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., both spoke at the DAV rally in favor of the idea, promising to push legislation in their respective chambers.
VA officials, however, have not been quite so supportive.
The department has refused to back the idea of fully funding operations a year in advance, stating that the best option for fiscal stability would be for lawmakers to pass their annual federal budgets on time.
Michaud, who sponsored the legislation with House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said he is unconcerned with that opposition.
“I don’t think the president will veto this bill if we pass it, and I’m sure the VA will welcome the measure as we move forward,” he said.
Miller and other House members are hopeful the measure can become law this year. No timetable has been scheduled for a vote.