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Opening Statement of Hon. Jeff Miller, Chairman, Full Committee on Veterans' Affairs

Welcome, Secretary Shinseki, to you and your team.  Thank you for being here today to present the President’s fiscal year 2012 budget request for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Welcome also to the veterans’ organizations that are with us today. 

Let me say at the outset that I look forward to a close working relationship with all of you as we work to improve the delivery of benefits and services to America’s veterans.  

As everyone knows, this is a tougher budget to measure because we do not have a full-year appropriation for every VA account for the current fiscal year.  That said, if the numbers in the House CR bill are carried forward I see the President’s fiscal year 2012 budget as, roughly, a 3.5% increase in VA discretionary spending.  Relative to prior years, this is a much more measured request.

What is important, however, is not the percentage increase it is whether the resources requested meet our obligations to America’s veterans and America’s taxpayers.  Toward that end, I have several initial observations.

First, I’m interested to learn how this budget will chart a path forward to address the broken disability claims system.  Staffing for compensation claims has tripled since the late 1990’s, numerous Information Technology tools have been utilized, and there have been different organizational models attempted.  Nothing has worked.  I want to know how this budget takes a new approach to this challenge.

Second, I’m interested in learning how this budget is prioritized to meet the needs of family caregivers of severely wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. 

The reaction to VA’s initial plan to implement the new Family Caregiver law has been negative.  I will explore ways we might be able to refocus resources for this important initiative.

Third, I’d like to know what energy went into eliminating wasteful, redundant spending.  The President’s bipartisan Deficit Reduction Commission suggested that every agency, VA included, step up to the plate. 

I have to say, when I look at this budget and I see that it proposes a funding level for the Office of the Secretary that is 41% higher than 2009 levels; 50% higher for the Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs; 96% higher for the Office of Policy and Planning; and 140% higher for the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs…it raises all kinds of red flags.

Finally, there are some curious new accounting mechanisms proposed in this budget.  VA proposes that a portion of its 2012 medical care budget be classified as a ‘contingency fund.’   

It also proposes that Congress appropriate money VA says it can save through management efficiencies so that it can then carry that money over into another fiscal year.   These are new concepts that I’d like to get more detail on.

Mr. Secretary, we are all acutely aware of the fiscal and economic crisis our nation is in…debt of $14 Trillion, a deficit this year of $1.55 Trillion, unemployment hovering at just under ten percent. 

We also are aware of the obligation we have to those who defend our freedoms every day.  That is the privilege we all have in serving on this Committee.  One measure of that obligation is how well we are addressing veterans’ needs through the programs and services administered by VA.

So, there is a balance that must be struck a balance that recognizes both the moral duty we have to care for those who served in uniform and the reality that funding for that care doesn’t exist in a vacuum. 

Let me borrow a quote from recent history that touches on the challenge we face in finding that balance

‘[T]he Committee’s members have kept in mind the fiscal limitations within which we must operate if we are to get Federal spending under control and thereby reduce the Federal deficit and debt.  We believe that the Government can be fiscally responsible while still fulfilling its commitments to the most deserving among us – including our Nation’s veterans.  We also are mindful that uncontrolled Federal spending threatens the long-term health of the Nation’s economy and, in turn, could adversely affect the provision of veterans’ benefits. Thus, we recognize that those who have worn the uniform in defense of the Nation seek, as we do, to protect the health of Nation’s economy.’

Now, I know some listening might think I’m quoting from a Tea Party Committee. 

No, these were views expressed in a letter signed by every member, Democrat and Republican, of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs back in 1997, including the current Chairman of that Committee. 

I recognize that times are different now than they were then.  We are now fighting a war on terrorism that has placed demands on VA’s medical and benefits system, so our priorities must obviously reflect that basic fact. 

But here is another difference, the deficit then was only $128 billion, today it’s over 10 times larger.  

Moving forward, I sincerely hope every member of this Committee can work together to find common ground on the difficult choices ahead. Together, I truly believe we can meet our commitments to veterans while also being mindful of our fiscal stewardship of taxpayer dollars.