Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Hearing Transcript on Legislative Hearing on H.R. 4883, H.R. 4884, H.R. 4889, H.R. 4539, H.R. 3646, H.R. 5664, H.R. 3798, H.R. 3393, H.R. 3298, H.R. 3467, H.R. 3889, H.R. 3681 and H.R. 5684
LEGISLATIVE HEARING ON H.R. 4883, H.R. 4884, H.R. 4889, H.R. 4539, H.R. 3646, H.R. 5664, H.R. 3798, H.R. 3393, H.R. 3298, H.R. 3467, H.R. 3889, H.R. 3681 AND H.R. 5684
SUBCOMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
ONE HUNDRED TENTH CONGRESS
APRIL 16, 2008
SERIAL No. 110-83
Printed for the use of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs
U.S. GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE
For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
CORRINE BROWN, Florida
STEVE BUYER, Indiana, Ranking
Malcom A. Shorter, Staff Director
SUBCOMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY
Pursuant to clause 2(e)(4) of Rule XI of the Rules of the House, public hearing records of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs are also published in electronic form. The printed hearing record remains the official version. Because electronic submissions are used to prepare both printed and electronic versions of the hearing record, the process of converting between various electronic formats may introduce unintentional errors or omissions. Such occurrences are inherent in the current publication process and should diminish as the process is further refined.
C O N T E N T S
April 16, 2008
Legislative Hearing on H.R. 4883, H.R. 4884, H.R. 4889, H.R. 4539, H.R. 3646, H.R. 5664, H.R. 3798, H.R. 3393, H.R. 3298, H.R. 3467, H.R. 3889, H.R. 3681 and H.R. 5684
U.S. Department of Labor, Hon. Charles S. Ciccolella, Assistant Secretary, Veterans’ Employment and Training Service
Prepared statement of Hon. Ciccolella
U.S. Department of Defense:
Thomas L. Bush, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs,
Curtis L. Gilroy, Ph.D., Director for Accession Policy, Military Personnel Policy, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness
Prepared statement of Mr. Bush and Dr. Gilroy
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Keith Pedigo, Associate Deputy Under Secretary for Policy and Program Management, Veterans Benefits Administration
Prepared statement of Mr. Pedigo
American Legion, Ronald F. Chamrin, Assistant Director, Economic Commission
Prepared statement of Mr. Chamrin
Buyer, Hon. Steve, Ranking Republican Member, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, and a Representative in Congress from the State of Indiana
Prepared statement of Congressman Buyer
Davis, Hon. Artur, a Representative in Congress from the State of Alabama
Prepared statement of Congressman Davis
Filner, Hon. Bob, Chairman, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, and a Representative in Congress from the State of California
Prepared statement of Congressman Filner
Hayes, Hon. Robin, a Representative in Congress from the State of North Carolina
Prepared statement of Congressman Hayes
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Patrick Campbell, Legislative Director
Prepared statement of Mr. Campbell
Military Officers Association of America, Colonel Robert F. Norton, USA (Ret.), Deputy Director, Government Relations
Prepared statement of Colonel Norton
Murphy, Hon. Patrick J., a Representative in Congress from the State of Pennsylvania
Prepared statement of Congressman Murphy
Paralyzed Veterans of America, Richard Daley, Associate Legislation Director
Prepared statement of Mr. Daley
Rodriguez, Hon. Ciro D., a Representative in Congress from the State of Texas
Prepared statement of Congressman Rodriguez
Stearns, Hon. Cliff, a Representative in Congress from the State of Florida
Prepared statement of Congressman Stearns
Yarmuth, Hon. John A., a Representative in Congress from the State of Kentucky
Prepared statement of Congressman Yarmuth
Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, Justin Brown, Legislative Associate, National Legislative Service
Prepared statement of Mr. Brown
SUBMISSIONS FOR THE RECORD
CTIA - The Wireless Association, Jot D. Carpenter, Jr., Vice President, Government Affairs, letter
Disabled American Veterans, Kerry Baker, Associate National Legislative Director, statement
National Cable and Telecommunications Association, Kyle McSlarrow, President and Chief Executive Officer, letter
MATERIAL SUBMITTED FOR THE RECORD
Hon. Steve Buyer, Ranking Republican Member, and Hon. Michael Michaud, Chairman, Subcommittee on Health, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Hon. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, letter dated January 28, 2008, Regarding the Stimulus Package [An identical letter was sent to Hon. John Boehner, Minority Leader, U.S. House of Representatives.]
Post-Hearing Questions and Responses for the Record:
Hon. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Patrick Campbell, Legislative Director, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, letter dated April 30, 2008, Mr. Campbell's responses
Hon. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Hon. Charles S. Ciccolella, Assistant Secretary, Veterans' Employment and Training Service, U.S. Department of Labor, letter dated April 30, 2008, and response letter dated June 23, 2008
Hon. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Curtis L. Gilroy, Ph.D., Director for Accession Policy, Military Personnel Policy, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, U.S. Department of Defense, letter dated April 16, 2008, and DoD responses
Hon. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Keith Pedigo, Associate Deputy Under Secretary for Policy and Program Management, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, letter dated April 16, 2008, and VA responses
LEGISLATIVE HEARING ON H.R. 4883, H.R. 4884, H.R. 4889, H.R. 4539, H.R. 3646, H.R. 5664, H.R. 3798, H.R. 3393, H.R. 3298, H.R. 3467, H.R. 3889, H.R. 3681 AND H.R. 56844
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
U. S. House of Representatives,
Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity,
Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
The Subcommittee met, pursuant to notice, at 1:00 p.m., in Room 334, Cannon House Office Building, Hon. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin [Chairwoman of the Subcommittee] presiding.
Present: Representatives Herseth Sandlin, Donnelly, Hall, Boozman.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. The Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, hearing on pending legislation will come to order.
For those of you that monitor this Committee's activities more closely, you know it is a bipartisan Subcommittee.
The Ranking Member has a number of other responsibilities today in other Committees as well as on the floor and he has asked me to begin the Subcommittee hearing in his absence. He will join us as soon as possible.
I would also like to ask unanimous consent to allow Counsel to pose questions to the witnesses on the third and fourth panels. Seeing no objection, so ordered.
I would also like to call attention to the fact that the Cellular Telephone Industry Association, the Wireless Association, and the Disabled American Veterans have asked to submit written statements for the hearing record. If there is no objection, I ask for unanimous consent that their statements be entered for the record. Hearing no objection, so entered.
Today we have 13 bills before us that seek to protect our Nation's veterans from possible foreclosure and financial burdens incurred while serving one's country, update U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) housing construction guidelines, expand education programs while meeting the current retention needs of the Armed Forces, strengthen employment and reemployment rights for returning servicemembers, veterans, and minimize recidivism among incarcerated veterans.
According to a Congressional Research Service report updated January 25th, 2008: "The original GI Bill provided up to $500 annually for education expenses. This is the equivalent of an estimated $5,890 in 2007 dollars. An additional $50 was provided monthly for living expenses in 1944, which is equivalent to $589 monthly or $5,301 annually in 2007 dollars. Thus, the total education benefit including the living allowance in 1944 would have been worth $11,191 annually or $1,243 monthly in 2007 dollars."
Keeping this historical perspective in mind, I, along with Ranking Member Boozman, have introduced H.R. 5684, the “Veterans Education Improvement Act," which seeks to address the educational needs of our brave men and women in uniform.
This bipartisan bill is the product of numerous hearings held by our Subcommittee since the beginning of the 110th Congress which allowed for close evaluation of the Montgomery GI Bill and input from Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), education leaders, government agencies, and other policy experts.
H.R. 5684 would help address current Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) shortfalls along with other important improvements including substantially increasing the amount of basic education assistance for veterans equal to the average cost of the tuition at a four-year public college or university, provides veterans with a monthly cost-of-living stipend, extends the time limitation for use of education benefits from ten years to fifteen years, and more fully accommodating the transition from military to civilian life.
I would like to add that H.R. 5684 includes unique provisions that allow the overall assistance to be used for business courses, preparatory courses for exams, and to repay Federal student loans. It dramatically expands the opportunity for servicemembers to enroll for the benefits even if they are beyond the initial opportunity for automatic enrollment, provides increased funding for state approving agencies, an important partner in administering the benefits with the VA, rewards veterans for their service by eliminating their educational entitlements from being considered as income when applying for Federal financial aid. It also increases on-the-job training and dependent education benefit to 85 percent, supplements reporting fees given to colleges and universities, creates a five-year pilot program to expand work study programs for veterans, increases the VA's full-time employees by 150 to help administer the new requirements, provides funding for updating existing IT systems, and rearranges the advance pay process to prevent any breaks in benefits.
H.R. 5684, one of the many bills we are considering today, provides specific improvements and adjustments meant to make it easier, not harder, for veterans to access the education benefits they have earned following their service and contributes to the overall national economy.
In addition, this bill will make changes with minimal disruption of the current VA information technology (IT) system and to the beneficiaries.
The “Veterans Education Improvement Act" is a well-crafted bill that provides the VA the resources to administer the new changes, to update and improve the MGIB to better reflect today's world, and ensure that today's veterans have the resources they need to continue or begin their education when they return from service.
I appreciate the support of many of today's witnesses for this bill that addresses necessary changes to veterans education benefits. I look forward to working with Ranking Member Boozman and other Members of the Committee to continue to improve education entitlements for the veterans that we serve.
[The statement of Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin appears in the Appendix.]
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Joining us today and seated at the dais is Chairman Bob Filner, and Ranking Member Steve Buyer. And also joining us on the first panel is the Honorable Ciro Rodriguez, all of whom are distinguished Members of the Committee. All of their written statements will be entered into the hearing record. We will begin with Chairman Filner.
STATEMENTS OF HON. BOB FILNER, CHAIRMAN, COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS, AND A REPRESENTATIVE IN CONGRESS FROM THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA; HON. STEVE BUYER, RANKING REPUBLICAN MEMBER, COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS, AND A REPRESENTATIVE IN CONGRESS FROM THE STATE OF INDIANA; HON. CIRO RODRIGUEZ, A REPRESENTATIVE IN CONGRESS FROM THE STATE OF TEXAS; AND HON. CLIFF STEARNS, A REPRESENTATIVE IN CONGRESS FROM THE STATE OF FLORIDA
Mr. FILNER. Thank you, Madam Chairwoman, and we appreciate your leadership in this Congress.
Because of your leadership, I think this Congress will soon be taking up a GI Bill for the 21st Century that updates the educational benefits as you have proposed, looks at the housing program I will speak to today, and also allows the Guard and Reserve units to participate in the GI Bill to a much greater extent than they are currently allowed.
I believe we are moving along in a major effort to do something that had such an impact on our society in 1944, the original GI Bill.
Let me just talk about another part of that original bill and that is the Home Loan Program that so many of the veterans after World War II were able to take advantage of.
In a meeting in my district, we heard from active-duty service men and women veterans, VA experts, mortgage brokers and lenders from the area. Based on that meeting, we saw the program being irrelevant, not only to the current crisis, but before then in terms of its loan values, equity requirements, refinancing caps, and fees that are imposed. We want to update the program to make it relevant to the veteran today.
One bill that I want to make sure we take quick action on is H.R. 4883, which prevents foreclosure on active-duty personnel. We have had anecdotal testimony of young people coming back and finding that they were, going to lose their home soon after their tour of duty was over. That is unacceptable. Active-duty servicemembers should not have to face that consequence. What we have done in H.R. 4883 is prevent any foreclosure for at least a year after they return from active duty.
H.R. 4884, another bill introduced, is sort of a complement to your bill that you just described in terms of updating the Home Loan Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs. It increases the maximum home loan guaranty to $715,000, decreases the equity requirements to refinance a home loan, requires the VA Secretary to review and streamline the process of using a guaranteed home loan to purchase a condominium. Right now condominiums are subject to a great deal of regulation and red tape and it is hard to finance a condominium through the VA Home Loan Program.
In addition, we want to reduce the home loan refinancing fees to one percent, extend the adjustable rate mortgage demonstration program to the year 2018, extend the so-called hybrid adjustable rate mortgage demonstration project to 2012, and provide a yearly adjustment of the VA home loan to match the consumer price index.
There are many people in my district, around the country, who are facing the prospect of foreclosures and the value of their home falling. They are not able, given the restrictions of the VA program, to use that at all, no matter what their situation is or what they may be qualified for they are not able to make use of a program that was meant to give them some loan guarantees.
What we do in H.R. 4884 is to make that possible for veterans in the situation that they find themselves today, but even without the crisis, to make it fit the 21st century.
In addition, I have another bill, H.R. 4889, to recodify the so-called REAP Program, the Reserve Education Assistance Program, entitlements that provide now up to 36 months of education benefits to certain members of the Reserve forces who were called on or ordered to active-duty service in response to war and national emergency.
Without going into details now, it allows for far more flexibility, support, and help for those in the Reserve who have given so much of their life and time on active duty.
I look forward to working with you. I thank you for your leadership and bringing all these bills up for consideration today.
[The statement of Congressman Filner appears in the Appendix.]
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you for your leadership in introducing a number of those bills, particularly as they relate to veterans' housing, and your support of our efforts here on the Subcommittee to address all of the issues within our jurisdiction, but most recently veterans' education.
I would now like to recognize our distinguished Ranking Member, Mr. Buyer.
Mr. BUYER. Thank you.
Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin and Ranking Member Boozman, I am very pleased that you have included my bill, H.R. 4539, the “Department of Veterans Affairs Loan Guaranty Cost Reduction Act of 2007," for the Subcommittee's consideration.
When this bill was introduced last December, the full extent of the mortgage and financial sector crisis had not yet appeared and, frankly, this bill was intended to improve the day-to-day operations of the Loan Guaranty Program. But events since we introduced H.R. 4539 have convinced me of the need to make the kind of changes included in my bill.
I recognize that Chairman Filner has a similar bill, H.R. 4884, and I take that similarity as a confirmation of the need to improve the Loan Guaranty Program. I believe that between us, veterans will find it easier to achieve the American dream.
I would ask unanimous consent to include in the record a copy of the January 28, 2008, letter co-signed by Mr. Mike Michaud and I that sent to Speaker Pelosi and Leader Boehner regarding the need to include the VA Loan Guaranty Program in the recent stimulus package in the hearing record.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Seeing no objection, so ordered.
[The letter to Speaker Pelosi appears in the Appendix. An identical letter was sent to Leader Boehner and will not be reprinted.]
Mr. BUYER. In the letter, Madam Chairwoman, what Mr. Michaud and I were asking to do was that as the Freddie Mac rate was increased to the limit of $720,000, the FHA loan limits be matched to the VA, yet the VA was excluded from the stimulus package. And Mr. Michaud and I sent that letter to the Speaker and Mr. Boehner.
At the time when I had spoken to Mr. Boehner, he and the Speaker basically had an agreement. A lot of amendments and requests came to them and they made the judgment that the agreement that they struck with the President, that they would hold to it.
And as painful as a lot of the corrections and the fixes that they were learning were, they held on tight to their agreement. And to me, it is sort of what can happen if you do not allow the Committee to do its work. If somebody writes a bill under the pressure of the moment, mistakes can happen.
Now, I had made a request to Chairman Filner to do a stimulus fix under suspension. He had declined to do that, Madam Chairwoman. And, frankly, I am not upset over that because you are doing your due diligence. So he has a bill. I have a bill. You have some ideas. Mr. Boozman has some ideas. And I think we are at a moment here where we are going to have a good meeting of the minds.
The stimulus package says 125 percent of the area median price of a home as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development not to exceed 175 percent of the Fannie/Freddie conforming limit of $417,000, which is $729,750.
So when you look at the loan limits that Mike Michaud and I had included in our bill, when you look at the loan limits that the Chairman included in his, they do not even match the stimulus.
So if we really want to do this, we really should match it to the stimulus fix and then you can come in and look at some of the improvements that we have done in the bill.
I guess my counsel to you, Madam Chairwoman, is you can take the best out of proposals, some that Mr. Michaud and I have done, some that the Chairman has done, some recommendations that we are going to hear today, and we will give great deference to your leadership.
What we had sought to do in the bill, H.R. 4539, beyond this increase now, was increase the maximum loan amount guaranteed by VA to 125 percent of the Freddie Mac conforming limit, and we believe that this would enable the servicemembers and the veterans living in the high-cost areas to purchase homes using the VA Loan Guaranty Program.
This goes right at the heart of the issue that Mr. Filner was talking about when he held this hearing out there with regard to San Diego being one of the highest cost-of-living index in the country. The pain of access to affordable housing that he has is much different than I have in rural Indiana and that you have in the Dakotas. And we are most hopeful that this would help address these issues.
What we also sought to do here is the intent with regard to the President, the Speaker, and Leader Boehner in increasing the FHA loan limits when you have individuals who are in subprime loans was to be able to move them into the Federal guaranteed loans. Well, do not leave veterans out of the equation. And you and I have had that personal conversation.
And we also seek to extend some of the fees through 2017. These fees provide the funds the VA needs to pay for the guaranty on homes that go into foreclosure. These fees have also provided PAYGO offsets for improvements to VA benefits.
We also seek to increase the guaranty amount for certain refinanced loans by making VA refinancing more attractive and competitive in the marketplace.
The Michaud/Buyer bill also reduces the equity requirement for a VA guaranteed refinancing loan to zero. This is especially important for those servicemembers and veterans whose home equity has decreased solely because of the current market forces despite the fact that they are not behind on their mortgage payments.
We also want to make loans more affordable in the high-cost areas. The legislation would limit the total loan guaranty fees to the maximum dollar amounts in effect on the day of enactment.
Also, to encourage an increase in the supply of affordable housing, H.R. 4539 would increase the guaranty amount of 30 percent of the mortgage.
And, finally, this legislation would require the Secretary to provide a small measure of assistance in offsetting closing costs associated with the purchase of a home. The Secretary would determine the amount based on the income of guaranteed fees in the previous year.
Madam Chairwoman, as you know, in regards to your comments on the GI Bill, H.R. 5684, I mention this because it is a good bill and you have worked with our side of the aisle in a bipartisan manner. And there are a few changes that I feel are important.
I believe that the train is moving quickly and there is not a lot of time here in this Congress. So for this restructuring here with regard to VA education programs, the question is whether it is feasible to do it in a comprehensive fashion? It may not be comprehensively. And I note you are trying a major incremental movement.
I am in the process of drafting an extension and reorganization of Chapters 30, 32, 34, 35, and 36 into one or two chapters to standardize the administrative rules and education and training options to those receiving education benefits.
I hope that we can work together on this approach to bring some order to these programs in the not too distant future.
Madam Chairwoman, I want to thank you for your bipartisan manner in which you have included H.R. 4539 and several other bills from our side of the aisle in today's hearing.
I would also end with this remark, that the issue with regard to Guard and Reserve is not in your bill. I know the Chairman had made comments as though it is in the bill. And I think what that does is it puts the Chairman and I in agreement, and I know you also have been a very strong advocate of the Guard and Reserve.
And we do not want to do anything that would exasperate the gap. So as we work on the improvements with regard to the active duty, if, in fact, we have a moment in time, we should capture it. And I want to work with you to do that, whether it is to do only that which is within our jurisdiction or we try to add that and we have a joint referral with the Armed Services Committee. We will work with Dr. Snyder.
I think if we are going to move, and you have the sincerity to make this major move, I want to join with you and do everything I can with Mr. Filner or anybody else on the Committee to satisfy equity and fairness with regard to the Guard and Reserve.
Now, there is going to be a price. It will come with mandatory funding. I will speak with Mr. Boehner. I will speak with the Budget Committee on our side. You will not find opposition from my side of the aisle with regard to a mandatory fix, if we take what you are doing and we do the equity fix in Guard and Reserve and working with the Armed Services Committee, I believe that when individuals of good will share sentimentalities, that it is a prescription for success.
And that is what I have always felt in all the work I have ever done with you. And that is where I want to proceed in this.
With that, I yield back.
[The statement of Congressman Buyer appears in the Appendix.]
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. I thank the Ranking Member, and I will just make a couple of remarks before recognizing our colleagues on the first panel for their testimony.
I appreciate the words of the Ranking Member and I appreciate the leadership that you and Mr. Michaud demonstrated as the train was moving quickly a few months ago in putting a stimulus package together.
I know that since our conversation that I have spoken with leadership, both on the Financial Services Committee with jurisdiction as well as with leadership on our side of the aisle. I know that Chairman Filner has done the same, because of our desire to want to look at another vehicle to make that fix, if indeed there is another stimulus or other strategy or avenue that we are looking at to continue to grapple with the crisis that we are seeing in housing, not only how veterans are affected but other constituents with whom we work and who we serve.
As it relates to veterans' education, again, your words are appreciated. You are right. Mr. Boozman and I have worked hard when he was the Chairman of the Subcommittee and when I was Ranking Member and in this Congress to address the issues of equity for National Guard men and women and Reservists.
The purpose of the bill that we introduced in a bipartisan way purposely did not include those provisions, although I believe Chairman Filner may have been referring to work that I have been undertaking with Counsel to work and fashion a separate bill for Guard and Reservists that would be entirely within the jurisdiction of the Armed Services Committee.
We wanted to avoid joint referral for a number of reasons as it related to increasing basic pay, the basic benefit in the Montgomery GI Bill, as well as include a number of the very unique provisions that our bill includes that we uncovered during the series of hearings that we have had with this Subcommittee.
I certainly share your sentiment and I think all of us do on the Subcommittee as well as our colleagues on the full Committee, of trying to undertake something in a more comprehensive way, if that is going to be possible. We want to make sure that, depending on which track the train is on, we have a lot of different options on the table.
If the comprehensive approach is indeed the track we are on, then I think we are all in agreement that we want to make sure your efforts, as well as other efforts of those on the Subcommittee, are brought together. I know we will all work in good faith with the leadership on the respective sides to do that, based on our hard work here in the Veterans' Affairs Committee.
However, I am not sure that that is the track that we will be on. I hope so. We have great working relationships with people on the Armed Services Committee that undertook some of this work even in the "Defense Authorization Act" of last year.
Again, I appreciate your sentiments. I know how hard you have been working as it relates to the comprehensive fix and a reorganization and how beneficial that could be to veterans and their education benefits and the administration of those benefits.
Again, I thank you.
Mr. BUYER. Would the gentlelady yield?
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Yes, I would.
Mr. BUYER. Then let us step off together and work, step off together meaning off of the good work that was done in the last Congress with regard to Dr. Snyder and John McHugh.
So as we try to move the jurisdictional issues, right, and as you are formulating your legislation, please work with our staff and we will step off together because it will take the leadership of Mr. Skelton and Mr. Hunter because this is mandatory spending on their side. So it is going to take some major movement.
So with that, I yield back. I thank the gentlelady for her comments.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. I thank you.
Mr. Boozman, would you like to be recognized?
Mr. BOOZMAN. I want to apologize.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. We have all been saying such great things about you.
Mr. BOOZMAN. Well, I apologize. I am participating in the "Clean Water Act," which is a very important thing. And so I am just kind of running back and forth. The other Member of my Committee is on the Farm Bill, so he is over doing that.
So, again, we appreciate you, Madam Chair, in working with us. And I want to compliment the guys that are bringing some very, very good legislation before the Committee. We have got some really good things to work with. And so thank you very much.
[The statement of Congressman Boozman appears in the Appendix.]
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you, Mr. Boozman.
I would now like to recognize our distinguished colleagues on the full Veterans' Affairs Committee, Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Stearns.
Mr. Rodriguez, we will start with you. You are recognized for five minutes. Thank you for being here and thank you for introducing the bill that we are considering today.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ. Thank you. Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin, let me personally thank you and the Subcommittee for giving me this opportunity to speak to you regarding H.R. 5664, a bill that I introduced to correct the bureaucratic oversight in the way that the Veterans Administration advises contractors constructing or renovating housing for disabled veterans.
I was extremely moved by last June's hearing and testimony before this Subcommittee concerning specially adapted housing. There is little doubt that funding levels available to the individual disabled veterans to have their homes adjusted to meet their needs is too low.
My bill does not address that particular issue. Rather, it seeks to ensure that veterans whose homes are updated under this program benefit from all of the modern technology and construction practices that can be provided.
Mr. Gonsalves, President and Founder of Homes for Our Troops, pointed out in the hearing that servicemen and women with injuries that would have killed them in previous wars are now living to see another day and are in need of truly special home adaptations.
The primary guidance that the VA pro,vides the contractors who draw up the plans and specifications to modify homes under this grant program is VA Pamphlet 2613, entitled "Handbook for Design, Specially Adapted Housing."
As Mr. Carl Blake, the National Legislative Director of the Paralyzed Veterans of American, pointed out, much, if not all, of the guidance found in the pamphlet is still applicable today. However, I feel, that it focuses too much on veterans who find themselves in wheelchairs with lower extremities and paralysis or amputations.
While certainly still valid, we find increased number of veterans returning home from current conflicts with alternative injuries such as upper limb amputations or blindness. The guide was last updated in 1978. By comparison, the current Army Corps of Engineers Housing Design Guide is dated 1994 and that of the Air Force is 2004.
The time has come to ensure that the guide contains updated directions to architect and engineering firms and contractors who will do the noble work of ensuring our disabled veterans have homes that respect the dignity of which they have sacrificed.
I propose in my bill that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs update the guide at least on a six-year basis.
I also wish to express my intent that the field agents who approve the construction plans under this program view the pamphlet as a guide rather than a definitive set of requirements. It should be just looked at as a guide to help out, not one that is a definitive set of requirements.
After consulting with several VSOs in preparing for this testimony, I need to clarify the wording of the bill. Rather than requiring the VA to update plans and specifications on a six-year basis, it is better stated that the pamphlet itself is updated every six years.
Contractors actually derive the plans and specifications based on each veteran's home and the pamphlet. And I would hope that if the Committee considers my bill in the future markup that such language is made clear.
I want to thank you very much for this opportunity and just indicate now that, we can make these homes much more adaptable. We can, for example, allow additional electrical outlets, allow for swinging doors, allowing for other types of, updates, based on the individual handicaps or difficulties that they have in getting around.
And so thank you, Madam, and I want to thank you once again for allowing me this opportunity to present the bill.
[The statement of Congressman Rodriguez appears in the Appendix.]
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you very much, Mr. Rodriguez. Again, thank you for your leadership on this important issue on veterans' housing.
Mr. Stearns, thank you, too, for introducing the bill that we are considering today and look forward to hearing from you. You are recognized.
Mr. STEARNS. Good afternoon, and thank you, Madam Chair, for this opportunity to testify on my bill, H.R. 3646, the "Veterans Effective Training Job Opportunities and Benefits Act of 2007," or the "VET Jobs Act."
My colleagues, I think this bill is an important step in helping our veterans gain gainful employment when retiring from the service. When warriors return home from combat, they often face an uphill battle. For many servicemembers, the transition from active duty to veteran status and returning to a full, meaningful civilian life is daunting and fraught with many challenging obstacles and bureaucratic barriers.
Many times, these brave service men and women require job training for entirely new careers. Although statistics show that eventually veterans in general enjoy a favorable employment in the Nation's job market, many veterans initially find it difficult to compete successfully in the labor market.
That is why for over a decade, the Federal Government has provided job training benefits to veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Labor.
The mission statement for the Department of Labor Veterans' Employment and Training Service, VETS Program, is to, "Provide veterans and transitioning servicemembers with the resources and services to succeed in the 21st century workforce by maximizing their employment opportunities, protecting their employment rights, and meeting labor market demands with qualified veterans today."
Additionally, the Department of Labor offers servicemembers leaving the military with a service-connected disability the Disabled Transition Assistance Program or DTAP. This includes a three-day workshop, plus additional hours of individual instruction to help determine their job readiness and address the special needs of disabled veterans.
However, this is the identical DTAP Program offered to all transitioning disabled veterans across the Nation. This three-day program provider valuable support, but it only provides general employment information and at no time addresses the specific needs of the community in which the veteran lives and serves.
Unfortunately, this means that frequently there is a void of information on local labor market conditions that result in veterans using their benefits to train for jobs that do not exist in their own communities.
Mr. Jeffrey Askew, who is Director of the Marion County Veterans Service Center in my hometown of Ocala, Florida, has said many veterans have used their Federal job training benefits for information technology—IT career training. However, Ocala has little demand for IT professionals and veterans are often advised to move to Orlando where there are many more opportunities for them.
Upon finally getting settled back into civilian life, it is frustrating and unfortunate to say the least to be forced to uproot one more time and move your family to an unknown city.
I am concerned about this problem and I believe, my colleagues, I have an easy solution. Currently there is a maze of web sites with confusing and sometimes out-of-date information on employment conditions. My legislation would provide better information to veterans on their local job market needs.
The "VET Job Act" directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the Secretary of Labor to conduct a joint study on the greatest employment needs in various job markets around the United States and post the results on the VA web site. These results would then be updated annually to reflect the current and possible changing needs in the local job market.
With this tool, veterans could simply plug in their zip code and see a list of the occupations that are in most demand within their commuting area and subsequently use their Federal job training most effectively.
The Department of Labor already has the infrastructure in place for this kind of research, so this is a practical low-cost solution. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office has unofficially scored this proposal as having insignificant cost, insignificant cost for immeasurable benefit to our veterans.
Further, the "VET Job Act" has broad bipartisan support and has been endorsed by many veterans' organizations including the American Legion, the American Veterans (AMVETS), Veterans of Foreign War of the United States, the Blinded Veterans of America, and the Paralyzed Veterans of America. In addition, my bill has 44 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle.
So, Madam Chairwoman, I appreciate the opportunity to testify and allowing me this opportunity to talk about the "VET Jobs Act" and I look forward to working with you and the Ranking Member on passing this bill.
[The statement of Congressman Stearns appears in the Appendix.]
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you, Mr. Stearns, and thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to join us today to speak about your important bill. Certainly the efforts that you make on the full Committee and on other Subcommittees to address employment needs and other needs to make the disruption in their lives during that transition as small as possible.
Certainly Mr. Boozman and I have been working on this Subcommittee to address some of the issues that you are trying to get at in your bill. Again, we appreciate the introduction of it and the opportunity to hear from you directly today. Thank you.
I would now like to invite the second panel to the witness table. Joining us on our second panel of witnesses are a set of other colleagues and it includes the Honorable John Yarmuth, the Honorable Robin Hayes, and the Honorable Artur Davis, as well as the Honorable Patrick Murphy.
I welcome all of you gentlemen to our Subcommittee. As I have done with the other witnesses, we thank you each for introducing bills that we think get at the heart of the issues that we have analyzed and explored throughout a number of hearings in this Subcommittee.
We are pleased to have you here. Thank you for joining us. I know the schedules can be unpredictable, but we look forward to hearing directly from you.
I would like to go ahead and start with Mr. Yarmuth. You are recognized for five minutes.
STATEMENTS OF HON. JOHN A. YARMUTH, A REPRESENTATIVE IN CONGRESS FROM THE STATE OF KENTUCKY; HON. ROBIN HAYES, A REPRESENTATIVE IN CONGRESS FROM THE STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA; HON. ARTUR DAVIS, A REPRESENTATIVE IN CONGRESS FROM THE STATE OF ALABAMA; AND HON. PATRICK J. MURPHY, A REPRESENTATIVE IN CONGRESS FROM THE STATE OF PENNSYLVANIA
Mr. YARMUTH. Thank you, Madam Chairwoman, Members of the Subcommittee. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to be here today to discuss the "Second Chance for America's Veterans Act."
As a small pilot program, the Incarcerated Veterans Transitional Program or IVTP has reduced recidivism by 90 percent among participants and saved the taxpayers $1.6 million in each of the six locations where it has been implemented over the last three years.
We are here today because by expanding this tremendous level of success to a national scale, we could provide hope for thousands of men and women who return to civilian life after years of serving their country.
In my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, Richard Waddell returned home ten-percent disabled and suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, honorably discharged after nine years service in the National Guard, Army, and Marines. He had no job, no support, and a family to feed. Out of desperation, he turned to robbery and was apprehended by law enforcement while buying groceries for his family.
Unfortunately to this point, Richard's story is far from unusual among American's veterans. Where his story departs is that when he was released from jail for the second time, he met an IVTP representative. The IVTP worker first helped him with the essentials, clothes, food, and transportation. And from there, the dignity and respect that Richard had earned serving our Nation returned.
Thanks to the help of IVTP, Richard was able to activate his VA benefits and register for disability and he now has an apartment and holds a good job. Next week, he will begin college. And a future that once seemed bleak at best is now bright and full of promise.
IVTP has similarly aided 328 veterans in Kentucky by partnering veterans transitioning out of prison with a professional mentoring staff composed of veterans to help them get back on their feet. Of those 328, just 22 returned to criminal activity after engaging in the program, a recidivism rate of seven percent.
That number is impressive by any standard, but for a veteran population that sees over half of its ranks return to prison, the success of this program is extraordinary. Abandoning this success and the men and women who served our country would not only be counterproductive, but would also send a message that our veterans only matter when our country needs them and not when they need our country.
The "Second Chance for American Veterans Act" would expand the highly successful IVTP pilot to a competitive grant program in 24 locations across the United States. Providers would assist veterans who are exiting the corrections system by connecting them with transitional housing, employment services, mental health and/or substance abuse services and other community support.
After all that our veterans have given for this country, providing them with such vital, effective, and proven services should be an obligation, not an option. But this is not only about giving or forgiving. This is also a matter of working for our national interests.
In Kentucky, we have the most rapidly growing prison population in the Nation, a fact that has had a devastating effect on the fiscal reality of the commonwealth. To keep a convict in prison for a year, Kentucky spends over $18,000. By comparison, Volunteers of America, which currently administers this program, spends between $700 and $1,200 to give a veteran the tools to stay out of prison and contribute to society for a lifetime.
At a time when we search to find new approaches to stimulate the economy and get a handle on America's ever-growing deficit, the "Second Chance for Veterans Act" offers the opportunity to support a program with a proven track record of providing immediate and substantial return on our investment while also repaying a debt to those in uniform who sacrificed to serve our country.
This is a unique win-win for government. Still, the Department of Labor has chosen not to continue this highly successful program and without action by Congress, thousands of worthy veterans in need would be abandoned by the Nation they served, left to bounce around our overcrowded prison system.
So I thank the Committee for looking into this legislation and I strongly urge the Members to support passage of H.R. 3467, the "Second Chance for America's Veterans Act." Thank you, Madam Chairwoman.
[The statement of Congressman Yarmuth appears in the Appendix.]
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you, Mr. Yarmuth.
Mr. Hayes, you are recognized.
Mr. HAYES. Thank you, Madam Chair and Members of the Subcommittee, Mr. Hall. Thanks for bringing wisdom to the Subcommittee today.
Chairwoman Herseth and other Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to be here to address your Subcommittee on an issue that impacts our National Guardsmen. Today I am proud to stand before this Subcommittee in support of a critical piece of legislation, "National Guard Employment Protection Act of 2007."
As the Subcommittee is aware, the National Guard operations tempo has increased exponentially since September 11th and the Federal duties they have been charged with have created a unique situation.
Previously, National Guard doing Federal missions were called up under title 10 to active-duty status. The Global War on Terror (GWOT) became increasingly apparent and there needed to be a mechanism to allow the National Guard to perform Federal missions in Title 32 status. It is obvious that good staff work has helped put this together because this was difficult to find. I thank Ms. Shirley for her effort.
It has become clear that unified State, Federal cooperative employment of the National Guard provides a uniquely powerful tool to address domestic security needs. Some examples of this type of Federal Title 32 duty are air sovereignty, providing air defense for our Nation, airport security, operations in support of natural disasters, fighting wildfires, and border security to name a few.
More and more often we see operations in which the Federal Government provides the funds, the State Governors provide the authority and control to execute operations to secure the homeland.
This means that a greater number of National Guardsmen are performing such duties, which unfortunately, are not covered under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). Prior to September 11th, there were essentially no operational missions conducted by the Guard under Title 32, so there was no loophole in the protection afforded Guardsmen for their Federal service.
To address the loophole, I along with Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo of Guam, introduced H.R. 3798, the "Employment Act." The bill would amend the "Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994," USERRA, to authorize the Secretary of Defense to include full-time National Guard duty for exemption from the USERRA five-year limit on service.
Passage of the legislation will ensure that National Guard members are not forced to choose between keeping their civilian jobs and serving our Nation.
Since USERRA already authorizes exemptions for service supporting critical active-duty missions, this amendment would simply correct a disparity in the treatment of National Guard members.
It is essential that we make sure all our Nation's heroes are given adequate opportunity to support Federal missions without it affecting their civilian job. The Guard has increasingly been called on since September 11th. North Carolina has been one of the highest mobilization rates at over 97 percent.
Whether protecting our skies, saving lives in national disasters, enhancing security, there is no doubt that the Guard is an essential part of the total force. America's Guardsmen should never be put in a position where they are forced to choose to support a critical mission or to protect their civilian jobs.
Seven years into fighting the Global War on Terror, we are starting to see a small but increasing number of Guardsmen bumping up against their five-year USERRA protection. According to statistics provided by the Guard Bureau, since September 11th, 6,984 of our soldiers have been called up to perform Federal missions under Title 32. Currenty, 1,719 Guardsmen are performing duty under Title 32 orders.
Air Guard has especially been impacted, particularly those airmen performing air sovereignty alert missions. They are by no means alone in their situations. This loophole affects the entire National Guard.
If the "Guard Employment Protection Act" is not passed, National Guardsmen may be forced again to choose between their jobs and serving the Nation. Unfortunately, this is already starting to occur. The problem would get worse as we near the current USERRA five-year protection limit.
The Guard is performing critical missions under Article 32. We need to close this loophole. Legislation is fully supported by the Enlisted Guard Association and the United States National Guard Association. I believe they are in the room today. They have included their letters of endorsement for the record.
[The letters are attached to Congressman Hayes prepared statement, which appears in the Appendix.]
The Bureau and U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) also favor the closing of the loophole to protect the Guardsmen. Citizen soldiers fight to protect our Nation and our freedom. The very least we can do is protect their right to serve and retain their livelihood for themselves and their families.
Thank you very much for your serious consideration of this Act. I know all the Members of the Subcommittee obviously share my commitment to the Guard and strongly urge passage of the legislation. Thank you very much.
[The statement of Congressman Hayes appears in the Appendix.]
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you, Mr. Hayes.
Mr. Davis, you are recognized for five minutes.
Mr. DAVIS. Thank you, Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin, and thank you, Mr. Hall. Good to see you as well.
Now, let me begin by thanking the Chairwoman for her leadership since she came to the Congress four years ago on these issues. It is much appreciated.
Let me thank the Committee for giving me an opportunity to testify today on the "Reservist Access to Justice Act," H.R. 3393. I am proud to co-sponsor this legislation which deals with the employment rates of our Guards and Reservists.
I am happy to co-sponsor this bill with Jason Altmire from Pennsylvania whose district has one of the highest percentages of Guards and Reservists serving in the country and with Tim Walz from Minnesota who is the highest ranking member of the Guard serving in the United States Congress right now.
It would be inconceivable, Madam Chairwoman, to think, any single one of us, that any employer in this country would terminate someone because he or she served America. It would be inconceivable to any of us in this room that any employer in this country would decline to promote someone or cause someone to suffer an adverse condition of employment because he or she served this country.
But as inconceivable as it is to us, as illegal as it is under current law, it happens. Let me give the Committee some numbers to put this in perspective.
Between October 1st, 1996, and June 30th, 2005, 10,061 complaints were filed with the Department of Labor by Guards and Reservists alleging that, exactly what I just described, happened to them at places of businesses around this country.
About 70 percent of individuals who believe they experience discrimination, actually did not even file a lawsuit, were not aware of their protections under the law, or the law was so weak that it was not worth their while or worth the while of counsel. We do have a Federal statute. Mr. Hayes referenced it. It is called USERRA. It is a good statute, but in many ways, it does not have teeth.
Guards and Reservists who file suit under this statute are doomed to a second-class kind of litigation status. They are limited substantially in the damages they can collect. If a judge finds that they have been fired because of their status as a Guard or Reservist, right now the judge does not have the authority to even put them back at work. They cannot get punitive damages as many individuals do who sue after being wrongfully discriminated against and they face a variety of other procedural hurdles.
Well, this bill, H.R. 3393, seeks to give us the USERRA that our country deserves and that our Guardsmen and Reservists deserve. Let me outline some of its specific provisions.
Importantly, this bill would expand the availability of the damages that are available. Without getting into too much technical lawyer talk today, right now Guard and Reserve members often cannot get compensatory damages. Only in limited circumstances can they get those damages. This bill would make those damages automatic unless an employer can show a good faith reliance on the law that would bring Guards and Reservists in line with all of the kinds of employment litigants around the country.
Our bill would provide for punitive damages in the worst and most egregious cases of discrimination. That is what the law normally provides. When African Americans or women or other individuals believe that they have been discriminated against because of their status and their employer is an especially bad case offender, they can get punitive damages. This bill would allow the same opportunity for Guards and Reservists.