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Opening Statement of The Honorable Jeff Miller, Chairman for the Committee on Veteran Affairs

Hearing Statement
The Honorable Jeff Miller
HVAC Full Committee Hearing
September 19, 2013

This hearing will come to order.   Good morning, everyone. 

Ms. Mooney, welcome to you.  We’re breaking new ground here.  This is the first hearing I can recall examining the relationship between our Committee and the Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs, which you lead.  

I called this hearing in response to a growing frustration among Members in getting from your office what we need to do our work.  Whether it is the timely receipt of hearing testimony, responses to requests for information, or the quality of the information provided, we have concerns across the board. 

Let me start with hearing testimony.  Prior to an oversight hearing being called, it has been long-standing practice to provide the Administration with a minimum of two week’s notice of the hearing topic, and to request that testimony be delivered no later than 48 hours prior to a hearing.    Receiving testimony 48 hours in advance permits members and staff the minimum time necessary to not only carefully read the testimony, but also to craft thoughtful questions. 

But whether VA is provided two week’s notice or two month’s notice, it seems the timely receipt of testimony is completely arbitrary.  For example, you knew more than a month in advance that we were having a joint hearing with the Armed Services Committee on servicemember transition issues back in July, yet the testimony was received late in the afternoon on the day before the hearing.  Ms. Mooney, the fact that your testimony for today’s hearing was submitted on time is a good first step – not surprising given the topic -- but there must be a 100% track record going forward.  That ought to be the standard.

Let me turn now to information requests.  We’ve grown so frustrated with the timely receipt of quality responses from VA that we’ve had to take extraordinary steps to ensure accountability.  First, the Ranking Member and I launched a “Trials in Transparency” page on the Committee’s website detailing the number of outstanding VA requests.  Second, I send weekly letters to the department reminding them of all of the pending requests.  In total, we now have 70 pending, some which remain well over a year old.  

What is more troubling is that many of the pending requests relate directly to ongoing Committee investigations into life safety issues at VA facilities.  For example, on January 18, 2013, I requested emails and documents pertaining to a deadly Legionella bacteria outbreak at the Pittsburgh VA medical center.  As of Sep 17, 2013, no emails had been provided.  Worse, I learned that the media was provided some of the same emails I requested in as few as twenty days.  Ms. Mooney, the days where VA is more responsive to the media than a Congressional oversight Committee must end.

Given that five veterans are dead as a result of the outbreak, which VA’s own inspector general attributed to VA mismanagement, the Committee is engaged in an investigation into this matter to determine what went wrong and ensure it never happens again. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen a similar sense of urgency from VA to help us with our investigative efforts. Rather, VA’s reluctance to provide us with the information we have requested is actually impeding our progress.

Now, I understand that many of the delays we experience are out of your office’s control.  But, whether some other office within VA or OMB is to blame, your office exists as the first point of accountability.  If there is a problem somewhere else, it is your job, Ms. Mooney, working with the Secretary if necessary, to ensure they are fixed. 

One final point before I conclude.  Your testimony outlines the volumes of Congressional inquires your office responds to on a regular basis.  But your office has also received a 41 percent increase in budget authority and a 40 percent increase in staff since 2009.  Resources have been provided, yet frustrations persist on a bipartisan and bicameral basis.  If things don’t improve materially – and I’d like to work with you to develop some expectations moving forward -- we’ll have no choice but to reconsider the funding your office receives.

 VA owes it to America’s veterans and taxpayers to engage in an honest conversation about its past mistakes, the future challenges it faces and its capabilities for overcoming those challenges. Giving Congress timely access to the information it requests is an important part of that conversation. When VA drags its feet in providing information requested by Congress, it inhibits our ability to ensure America’s veterans are receiving the care and benefits they have earned. Our veterans deserve a VA that sets the standard for openness, honesty and transparency. When the department fails to do so, they must answer for that failure. That’s what today’s hearing is all about.

I now recognize the Ranking Member for his opening statement.