WASHINGTON — House and Senate lawmakers renewed their calls Wednesday to better insulate veterans from the impacts of future government shutdowns by fully funding benefits programs at least one year in advance.
Under current law, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs receives funding for all health programs one year in advance in order to shield those programs from a congressional budget process that has become predictably unpredictable.
On Wednesday, leaders of the House and Senate veteran’s affairs committees – including Maine Rep. Mike Michaud – called for swift action on bills that would provide advanced funding to the VA programs that provide pension benefits, disability payments and tuition assistance, among others.
“This is an idea that has proven itself . . . and the shutdown that recently occurred is a clear demonstration that we need this for the rest of Department of Veterans Affairs,” said Michaud, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Michaud, D-District 2, is co-sponsor of the advanced funding bill with committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.
Earlier this month, veterans and the service organizations that serve the millions of former military personnel across the nation were growing increasingly anxious as the budget stalemate tumbled into its third week.
The shutdown had already forced 10,000 furloughs at Veterans Benefits Administration programs, including several dozen personnel at VA’s Togus Medical Center in Augusta. But the VA was warning that the agency might be unable to make pension and disability payments to millions of veterans if the shutdown dragged into late-October or early-November.
Veterans watched in dismay as congressional Republicans and Democrats accused each other of using veterans to attempt to score political gains.
On Wednesday morning, veterans’ advocates joined lawmakers in a drizzly rain outside of the Capitol to urge House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to schedule a vote on the advanced-funding bill that has already passed the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, also pledged Wednesday to bring up a similar bill in his committee next month.
“Today, America’s veteran leaders are launching an all-out campaign to pass new legislation to extend advanced appropriations so that all VA programs, services and benefits are protected,” said Garry Augustine, executive director of the Washington headquarters of the Disabled American Veterans. “Never again should the men and women who served be used as pawns during political fights over the budget.”
With more than 130,000 veterans in a state of 1.3 million, Maine was tied for fourth in the nation last year in terms of the percentage of residents who served in the armed forces. Maine veterans received $420 million in pension and disability compensation payments in fiscal year 2012, according to VA figures.
The so-called “discretionary” programs within the VA that include benefits programs comprises roughly 14 percent of the agency’s total budget. The advanced funding bill by Miller and Michaud passed the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee with strong bipartisan backing in August.
But the legislation has yet to come up on the House floor due, at least in part, to oversight and accountability concerns by lawmakers in charge of appropriations. Michaud said that, unlike with the earlier bill providing advanced funding for VA health care programs, the current bill provides congressional oversight as well as additional planning, budgeting and program review requirements for the VA.
Miller, who is the committee chairman, said Congress needs to provide additional assurances and consistence to the VA on the benefits side of the equation because Congress is increasingly unable to get its budgeting work done on time.
“We don’t want veterans to be able to be used as political pawns in this discussion,” Miller said. “We need to all agree to take veterans and their earned benefits off the table.”
Kevin Miller can be reached at (207) 317-6256 or at: