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.
Witness Testimony of Brigadier General John W. Nicholson, USA (Ret.), American Battle Monuments Commission, Secretary
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:
I open my statement with the words of Harry Truman:
“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. American will never forget their sacrifices.”
When visitors approach the new Normandy American Cemetery Visitor Center that we will dedicate on June 6th, these are the first words they will read. The statement mirrors the mission of the American Battle Monuments Commission, which is to honor and commemorate the service, achievements and sacrifice of America’s armed forces.
Our fiscal year 2008 appropriation request for $53.3 million enables us to continue that mission. It funds the Commission’s Salaries and Expenses Account as well as our Foreign Currency Fluctuation Account.
For our Salaries and Expenses Account, we request $42.1 million to support the Commission’s requirements for personnel costs, service fees, scheduled maintenance and repairs, supplies, materials, spare parts, equipment replacement, and capital improvements.
Our request maintains staffing levels at 404 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) positions and $1.6 million for Security enhancements to open and protect the Normandy Visitor Center, its employees and visitors. These security enhancements are required by the Regional Security Office of the US Embassy in Paris. We have also included $1.4 million to support annual operations at the Visitor Center. FY 2008 funding provides the first full-year operating costs.
Our on-going worldwide ABMC challenge is to sustain the high standards of excellence we have set in maintaining our commemorative sites as shrines to America’s War Dead, while continuing to do a better job of telling the story of those we honor and persuading millions more people of all nationalities to see these splendid sites, which reflect the values of our United States of America.
For our Foreign Currency Fluctuation Account, we request $11.2 million to replenish the funds needed to defray losses experienced due to currency fluctuation, so we can maintain our buying power for services and materials to operate and sustain our commemorative sites in the European and Mediterranean Regions.
ABMC has struggled with maintaining our purchasing power over the years; in 2005 we needed a special foreign currency appropriation to do so. For FY 08, we propose a change in our approach to funding the foreign currency fluctuation account. New appropriation language requests an indefinite appropriation to supply “such sums” as may be necessary to maintain buying power against the European Euro, the British pound and other currencies. With this legislation, the Congress could use the “such sums” language proposal to re-estimate our foreign currency requirements, if needed, during the year.
Foreign currency is very important to ABMC. As noted by the GAO, over 70 % of ABMC’s budget is paid in euros or pounds. The volatility of exchange rates, combined with a weakening dollar, has increased the real cost of our ABMC mission and made it more difficult to plan and budget as effectively as we would like. An indefinite appropriation would remove some foreign currency vagaries from our budget preparation and execution.
For example, we began the FY 08 budget process a year ago, which was two years before we will actually begin to purchase foreign currency to pay our staff and suppliers abroad. Exchange rates can change significantly over two years. The “such sums” appropriations language would enable the Congress to remove that uncertainty. On May 1, 2006, 1 European Euro cost 1.2639 US Dollars. On April 30, 2007, 1 European Euro cost 1.36600 US Dollars, an 8 % decrease in purchasing power. The “such sums” language would protect our purchasing power against such drops.
We would continue to work with OMB, GAO and the Congressional staffs in choosing an appropriate currency rate for our budget submissions. However, the Congress by incorporating the “such sums” flexibility could prevent the situation where the foreign currency fluctuation is the determining factor in selecting which activities or projects we can afford to pursue. In other words, without “such sums” authorization, a decrease in the value of the US dollar vis-à-vis the European Euro or British Pound could necessitate a halt to vital maintenance projects in order to pay salaries or other expenses. Allowing us to focus on our mission is the real pay-off of this change in approach to foreign currency fluctuations.
Our facilities, most constructed following World War I and World War II, have aged considerably. Over time, deterioration accelerates, and the costs of materials, labor, and utilities increase around the world. We are allocating $3 million toward high-priority engineering projects specifically designed to protect the American people’s investment in the commemorative sites for which we are responsible. This funding will be used to perform periodic maintenance and to correct deficiencies within our infrastructure.
Since 2002, the Commission has been in the process of designing and constructing a Visitor Center at the Normandy American Cemetery in France. The center will tell the story of the 9,387 American soldiers buried at Normandy and the 1,557 missing in action memorialized there. Construction is nearly complete and we will dedicate the new center four weeks from tomorrow, on June 6, 2007, the 63rd anniversary of the D-Day landings.
Our challenge is to sustain the high standards of excellence we have set in maintaining our commemorative sites as shrines to America’s War Dead. Concurrently, we are doing a better job of telling the story of these uniquely splendid cemeteries and memorials. They inspire patriotism, evoke gratitude, and teach lessons of history to all who visit.
We are grateful for the support we receive from the House. The trust you place in us and your understanding of our operational needs ensures that we have sufficient resources, when we need them, to sustain our operations.
I would like to close by introducing the members of my staff that accompanied me today:
- Brigadier General William Leszczynski Jr., U.S. Army (Retired), Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer;
- Guy Giancarlo, Chief Financial Officer;
- Jeannie Faure, Budget Officer; and
- Tom Sole, Director of Engineering and Maintenance.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. This concludes my opening statement. I will be pleased to respond to your questions.