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Opening Statement of The Honorable Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans' Affairs

Thank you, Chairman Sanders.

Good morning Commander it is truly an honor to be here today with you and so many VFW members.  I want to extend a special welcome to your Commander-in-chief, Mr. William A. Thien (THIGH-N), a decorated Vietnam veteran from the Hoosier state.  Thank you commander for your many years of service in and out of uniform, and for being here with us today. I also want to welcome Ms. Sissy Borel (BORE-EL), the National President of the VFW Ladies Auxiliary.  Ma’am, thank you for being here and for all of the good work that the Auxiliary does for our veterans. Finally, I would like to recognize the VFW members from my home state of Florida who are in our audience today.

Ladies and Gentlemen would you please raise your hands.  Thank you. Each of you is a credit to your community and I am proud to have you here in our nation’s Capitol.  I also want to extend a special welcome to my fellow Floridian, Ms. Karen Nigara (KNEE-GAIR-A), who is Chairman of the National Legislative Committee.

Commander, our work begins with your testimony today and, after reading your written statement, there can be no doubt that you have much to be proud of.  Whether it is the 8.6 million volunteer hours VFW members contribute each year or the $3 million dollars in scholarships VFW provides to students annually, Americans all across this country know the good that each member of the VFW provides to their communities every day.  I have witnessed many of these efforts firsthand and I am personally grateful to each of your volunteers for the hard work they do.

I am also grateful for the hard work VFW does right here in Washington.  In my three years as Chairman - hand-in-hand with VFW and our other veterans service organization partners - we have: reduced veteran unemployment and provided retraining assistance benefits to tens of thousands unemployed veterans; ensured the safety of veteran patients and VA employees by strengthening protections against sexual assault and other safety incidents at VA medical facilities; and, conducted close oversight of VA’s disability claims process, major and minor construction programs, and its mental health care system.  Throughout these efforts and many more, VFW’s support, advice, and encouragement have been invaluable. 

I want to personally thank the VFW for your resounding support of H.R. 813, the Putting Veterans Funding First Act.  While the Veterans Health Administration is largely shielded from budgetary impasse, other functions critical to the Department, and to veterans, are not…including accounts for information technology, as well as for construction spending on vital maintenance and improvement projects.  I will continue to advocate passage of this measure, as the possibility of future political gridlock must not compromise the functionality of the Department of Veterans Affairs or the delivery of earned benefits to our veterans.

I want to also thank you for your overwhelming support of H.R. 357, the GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act of 2013, which passed the House last month. All of your hard work to gather support for that bill did not go unnoticed, and I would like to ask for your continued support in advancing this important legislation over in the Senate.  The major provision of this legislation would offer public colleges and universities a choice: either charge veterans recently separated from active duty in-state tuition rates or no longer be eligible to enroll student veterans under the GI bill.  It is time that public colleges and universities recognize that veterans served the Nation as a whole – all fifty states—and that reality ought to be reflected in the benefits they’ve earned.

Commander, one other area that I was pleased to see mentioned in your written statement was the need for continued oversight of management accountability at VA. In your written statement you commented that “working at VA is not a right, it is a privilege.”  I couldn’t agree with you more, and what troubles me, is that too many senior managers at VA take advantage of this privilege.  In fact, if you look at recent preventable deaths at VA Medical Centers, patient safety incidents, and claim backlog increases, Department senior executives who presided over negligence and mismanagement are more likely to have received a bonus than to be held accountable and receive a punishment.

When these senior leaders are not held accountable the Secretary is sending the message to the hundreds of thousands of hardworking VA front-line employees that negligence and poor performance are rewarded. This is why I ask for your support of a measure that I have introduced, H.R. 4031, the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014. 

This bill would provide the Secretary of Veterans Affairs the authority to remove any Senior Executive Service employee for poor performance. These are the employees that are directly responsible for the day-to-day success or failure of VA programs and must be held to the highest standard, which is what our veterans deserve.  I hope that this bill will have VFW’s support and you will continue to work with us to empower the Secretary to lead VA into the future.

Commander in Chief Thien, I want to thank you for being here today and I look forward to your testimony.