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Witness Testimony of Mr. Carl Blake, National Legislative Director Paralyzed Veterans of America

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Michaud, and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for inviting The Independent Budget veterans service organizations (IBVSOs) to present joint testimony on pending legislation designed to improve the budget, appropriations and planning processes of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  As you know, The Independent Budget is a comprehensive budget and policy document co-authored annually by AMVETS (American Veterans), DAV (Disabled American Veterans), PVA (Paralyzed Veterans of America) and the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States), and endorsed by dozens of other veterans organizations.

H.R. 813

It has been almost four years since the IBVSOs, along with our colleagues in the Partnership for Veterans Health Care Budget Reform, celebrated passage of Public Law 111-81, the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act of 2009.  This landmark legislation, the product of years of work and collaboration among veterans organizations and veteran leaders in the House and Senate, authorized one-year advance appropriations for the three medical care appropriations accounts in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA): medical services, medical facilities, and medical support and compliance (now medical administration).  As a result, the VA medical care budget is now approved up to a year in advance of the start of each fiscal year, preventing the disruptions that have been regularly occurring in other federal agencies due to endless budget stalemates and continuing resolutions.

In the two decades prior to enactment of the law, VA received its regular annual appropriation before the start of the fiscal year just four times, creating sustained challenges for administrators striving to provide timely, quality health care to wounded, injured and ill veterans.  With the enactment of Public Law 111-81, VA now receives its medical care appropriation on the first day of the fiscal year, and can plan on that funding level up to a year in advance.  By assuring timeliness and predictability of funding levels, VA health care has been more effective and efficient in the use of funding provided to operate VA’s medical care facilities and myriad programs.  

H.R. 813, the Putting Veterans Funding First Act, introduced by Chairman Miller and Ranking Member Michaud, would build upon this success by authorizing advance appropriations for the remaining discretionary accounts:  Medical and Prosthetic Research, General Operating Expenditures, Information Technology, National Cemetery Administration, Inspector General, Major Construction, Minor Construction, State Home Construction Grants, State Cemetery Grants and Other Discretionary Accounts.  In total, the remaining portion of VA’s funding requested outside the advance appropriation process is only 10 to 15 percent of VA’s total discretionary funding.

While the enactment of advance appropriations authority for VA medical care has been successful in helping the VA health care system operate more efficiently and rationally during budget stalemates, the remaining VA budget accounts continue to be negatively affected by unrelated political and partisan fights.  For example, although the VA medical care budget accounts may contain sufficient funding to open a new outpatient clinic, the fact that VA’s IT funding is still provided through the regular annual appropriations process can mean that computers or other IT systems might not be available until Congress completes its work on VA’s regular appropriations bills.  Similarly, some of the funding for Medical and Prosthetic Research directly contributes to clinical care, but it is out of sync with the provision of medical care funding done through advance appropriations.  Thus, while VA researchers’ salaries and benefits (paid by the Medical Services appropriation) are now secured at day one of a fiscal year, their awarded research projects may be delayed or interrupted because that appropriation is not yet approved by Congress.  

Moreover, VA construction accounts that fund vital infrastructure maintenance and improvement projects would also be more efficient if were provided through advance appropriations.  Uncertain funding levels and delayed contract awards add to overrun costs on important VA capital projects.   Finally, the Veterans Benefits Administration’s ability to address the backlog of pending claims and transform itself into a modern 21st century organization is hindered by annual budget fights and endless continuing resolutions.  Moreover, because VBA’s reform is heavily dependent on automation and information technology, its transformation would benefit from the timely and predictable funding resulting from advance appropriations.  

Mr. Chairman, in The Independent Budget for Fiscal Year 2014 we recommended that Congress debate and consider authorizing advance appropriations for all VA accounts.  Earlier this year, you and Mr. Michaud introduced H.R. 813 to achieve exactly that goal, and we are pleased to support this legislation.  We believe that our nation has no higher obligation than to ensure that the men and women who served in our armed forces receive all the benefits and services owed to them in a timely manner.  This legislation will help guarantee that promise is kept.

H.R. 806

In addition to extending advance appropriations to all VA accounts, The Independent Budget recommended that Congress permanently authorize a role for GAO to monitor and report on VA budget formulation and the advance appropriations process.  Under the provisions of Public Law 111-81, GAO was required to study and report on the Administration’s VA medical care budget submitted in 2011, 2012 and 2013.  In particular, GAO was required to compare the amounts included in the Administration’s budget submission with the amounts estimated by VA’s Enrollee Health Care Projection Model, the internal actuarial model that projects VA medical care resource needs.

In the first two years, GAO reported significant findings of unjustified, questionable changes VA made during the internal budget development process.  For example, in 2011, GAO found that requested funding for non-recurring maintenance (NRM) was significantly below the amounts projected by the actuarial model.  In 2012, GAO found that VA was once again proposing to make substantial reductions in budget requests based upon unverified future savings from planned operational improvements.  The third and final report required under the current statute is due to be released within the next month and we look forward to reviewing these findings.

H.R. 806, introduced by Representative Brownley, would make permanent the requirement that GAO continue to study and report on VA’s budget submissions, also a recommendation called for in The Independent Budget, and we are pleased to support this legislation.  

In addition, we would note that should H.R. 813 be enacted, it would be necessary to revise H.R. 806 to provide additional flexibility to enable GAO to study and report on all VA funding provided through advance appropriations.

Discussion Draft Bill on VA budget and strategic planning reform

The discussion draft bill to be proposed by Representative Michaud, entitled the “Department of Veterans Affairs Budget Planning Reform Act of 2013,” would establish new planning and budgeting processes, as well as study and make organizational changes affecting VA’s ability to develop and implement budgets and strategic plans.  The draft bill would establish five new processes to accomplish these purposes.

First, the draft bill, beginning in 2017, would require VA to conduct a Quadrennial Veterans Review (QVR) every four years, modeled after the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (QHSR) currently required by law.  The Quadrennial Veterans Review would study and report a strategy for meeting the nation’s commitment to veterans and the resources required to meet that commitment.  The QVR is intended to be a futures-based look at opportunities, challenges, policies and strategies related to meeting veterans needs.  The report would also examine the priorities for veterans programs and assess the effectiveness of VA’s organizational structure.  

The draft bill requires that VA conduct its review in consultation with other Federal agencies, as well as a wide range of stakeholders, “including State, local, and tribal government officials, members of Congress, veterans service organizations, private sector representatives, academics, and other policy experts.”   

Second, the bill would require VA to develop and submit annually a Future-Years Veterans Program (FYVP), which is modeled after the Future-Years Defense Program (FYDP) and the Future-Years Homeland Security Program (FYHSP).  The FYVP would lay out a five-year plan for meeting the nation’s commitment to veterans as well as delineate the resources necessary to meet that commitment.  The FYVP would include five-year estimates of the budget and appropriations levels on a program element basis in order to ensure that resources properly align with outcome-based plans and programs.  The FYVP would be submitted concurrent with VA’s annual budget submission and the draft bill would require that it be consistent with funding requests contained in the Administration’s budget submission.  The draft bill would also require that the Future-Years Veterans Program be coordinated with the Quadrennial Veterans Review, which serves as the foundation for developing the FYVP’s five-year plans.

Third, the draft bill would require the Secretary to annually provide certain policy guidance to VA planning, programming and budgeting officials throughout VA responsible for developing individual program budget recommendations.  The policy guidance from the Secretary would be required to be based on the most recent QVR and FYVP, as well as estimates of the “resource levels projected to be available” in future years.

Fourth, the bill would create the position of Chief Strategy Officer (CSO) to be filled by the Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning, or if there is a subsequent reorganization, the Assistant Secretary responsible for agency planning.  The CSO would have broad responsibilities for overseeing the planning, programming, budgeting and execution functions Department-wide, to include health care, benefit and cemetery programs.  The CSO would have significant independent authority, reporting only to the Secretary.  The CSO’s responsibilities for budgeting would be on the same level as VA’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO), a role designated for the Assistant Secretary for Management.  The CSO would be chiefly responsible for managing the new QVR, FYVP and policy guidance requirements contained in this draft bill.

Fifth, the draft bill would require VA to undertake a comprehensive one-year study of the organizational structure of the Secretary’s office and the Department as a whole.  In addition, the draft bill would require that an independent contractor conduct a parallel study of the organizational structure of the Secretary’s office and of the Department.  The independent study would be included within the report submitted by the Secretary to Congress.

The discussion draft bill has a number of intended purposes, which would include the following:

•    To strengthen VA’s capacity to plan for near- and long-term future needs of veterans;
•    To ensure that strategic planning is future-looking and outcome-based;
•    To create a more unified planning, programming, budgeting and execution process;
•    To better align VA’s plans with their resource requests; and
•    To increase the transparency of VA’s planning and budgeting processes.

The IBVSOs agree that these intended purposes are worthy goals, generally shared by VA and supported by Congress.  However, because the discussion draft bill has only recently been shared, and is not yet in final form, we have not had sufficient time to explore a number of important questions about whether the bill would ultimately be implemented as intended by its sponsors, whether the proposed structures and institutional changes would achieve its intended purposes, or whether there could be any unintended and negative consequences that could or should be addressed before the bill advances.  

For example, we are not yet certain that a strategic planning framework designed specifically for the Department of Defense (DOD) and later adopted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would be appropriate for VA.  There are fundamental differences between DOD and VA (and also between DHS and VA) that raise concerns about whether VA should be required to use the same planning structures and methods designed specifically to evaluate DOD’s future roles and missions following the end of the Cold War.  The original Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) was recommended in 1995 by the Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Iron Curtain over Eastern Europe, and revolutionary defense and budgetary changes taking place in the United States during the 1990s.  Because the world was being transformed in fundamental ways, DOD and Congress agreed it was necessary to comprehensively review and reconsider the nature of future national security threats, our defense posture and capabilities, and future-looking strategies and tactics required to protect our nation.  The paradigm shift in national and homeland security that occurred overnight on September 11, 2001 further emphasized the need for regular strategic reviews within both DOD and DHS.  By contrast, the fundamental roles and missions of VA and veterans policies rarely, if ever, need to shift so quickly or dramatically based on external events or influences.

Another central argument put forth by the Commission for creating a quadrennial review at DOD was that, “when Administrations change, defense planning is subject to a turbulence exceeded only by that resulting from significant shifts in the international security environment.”  While presidential elections may often lead to large swings in national security policy, our nation’s longstanding commitment to veterans has remained clear and steadfast for at least 150 years, going back to Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address and his call to “… care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan….”  Veterans policy evolves over time, not overnight following elections or as a result of a revolution in a foreign land.

Of course, long range strategic planning is vitally important and VA does and must continue to do so.  VA’s current strategic plan, which covers the period from FY 2011 to FY 2015, is centered around three guiding principles: “people centric,” “results-driven,” and “forward-looking.”  It lays out four strategic goals, sixteen major initiatives, and twenty supporting initiatives, and the plan identifies agency priority goals by fiscal year.  VA also annually prepares and submits to Congress and the public a Performance and Accountability Report to show how well VA’s strategic goals are being met through regular assessment of objective criteria.  In addition, VA’s annual budget submission lays out in great detail the programs and policies designed to achieve VA’s strategic goals, including analyses of resources dedicated to meeting each goal.  

VA also supports two dozen ongoing advisory committees to provide outside perspectives on specific needs, such as for disability compensation, education, prosthetics, geriatrics, homeless veterans and women veterans.  Congress has also authorized commissions and task forces from time-to-time to take comprehensive, in-depth looks at major issues or challenges, such as in mental health programs, disability benefits, vocational rehabilitation and health care funding, to name only a few.  It is not yet clear how or if the creation of a Quadrennial Veterans Review would improve on these ongoing strategic planning processes.  Would it ultimately combine, supplant, or supplement these activities?

Similarly, it is not clear whether the creation of a Future-Years Veterans Program would lead to either more transparent or more accurate budgets or appropriations.  Although the QDR and QHR are readily available online, it does not appear that the FYDP or the FYHSP are similarly available.  Although it is understandable that both DOD and DHS would keep classified programs’ budgeting and planning information shielded from public view, there appears to be no part of their Future-Years Programs that is publicly available for review, even for their many unclassified programs and budgets.  As such, we have questions about whether the information to be included in the FYVP would be transparent.  Furthermore, without the ability to review a Future-Years Defense (or Homeland Security) Program, we are challenged to determine how or whether this approach has changed their budgeting processes, and specifically whether the programs are better aligned with budgets and long-term plans.  We can reasonably conclude, however, that it has not made it more transparent.

We also have questions about the complexity of the proposed Future-Years Veterans Program process, both about the level of detail to be included and whether it would create a more helpful or difficult process.  Although we were not able to see an actual example of a Future-Years Program document, we were able to locate a 2004 DOD guide to the structure and codes used in the FYDP.  This document was 2,160 pages long and contained more than 8,500 Program Element (PE) codes, each of which may have associated five-year budget estimates.  We understand and appreciate that VA’s budgeting process is significantly less complex than DOD’s, but without the ability to actually see actual examples of how a Future-Years program would work, and without details about the number of program or budget lines the FYVP would contain, it is difficult to ascertain whether this new budgeting element would be an improvement to the current budgeting process.  We also have questions about how difficult it may be to change out-year numbers at the program level in a future budget-constrained environment.

Another significant unanswered question concerns the role of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in this new planning and budgeting process.  Since the draft bill requires that the Administration’s budget be “consistent” with the FYVP budget estimates, would OMB have a direct or indirect ability to revise or constrain the budget and appropriations levels contained in the FYVP?  In setting out “policy guidance” to the individual program offices, the Secretary is required to inform them of “resource levels projected to be available” as they make their budget estimates; would these levels come directly or indirectly from OMB?

There are also questions about the creation of a new CSO inside VA.  The language of the draft bill would give the CSO significant independence in overseeing all, planning and programming throughout VA, including that done within the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and the National Cemetery Administration (NCA).  Would the CSO have overlapping authority with the Under Secretaries of these administrations?  In preparation of the budget, the CSO also would play a significant role and possess final approving authority according to the draft bill’s language.  How would the CSO and the CFO interact during preparation of VA’s budget; are they co-equal and how would disagreements between them be settled?  Would this lead to greater harmony or conflict within VA’s budget formulation process?

We also have questions about the role of veterans service organizations in the development of the QVR.  The draft bill would require VA to consult with a wide range of stakeholders, both governmental and nongovernmental.  As organizations that have not only great interest in veterans policies, but great experience and expertise in dealing with them, we have concerns about whether this broad consultation process would dilute our input.  While there is always a role for outside perspectives to ensure fresh thinking within public agencies, VSOs are not idle stakeholders; collectively we provide direct assistance to VA and veterans in many areas, and particularly in representing veterans in their claims for benefits and services.  We all have service officers who work inside VA facilities and behind information technology (IT) firewalls, playing an integral role in the claims processing system and serving veterans as attorneys-in-fact.  We are concerned about the bill’s potential of diminishing our influence and putting us on par with less interested, involved or informed stakeholders during the consultation process.

Although we have important questions about the effects of this bill, the details of some of its provisions, and how it might be implemented, we have no questions about the sincere intentions of the bill’s sponsors.  We agree that VA’s strategic planning and budgeting processes ought to be consistently and openly aligned to achieve our shared goals in support of America’s veterans.  We also agree that more transparent, honest and detailed information can build greater confidence in VA, increase the effectiveness and efficiency of veterans programs, and improve the outcomes for veterans who need support, services and care.  However, planning processes or structures in one agency are not necessarily appropriate for every other agency.  History shows that Congressional intent is not always faithfully implemented. For all of the above reasons, we believe it is important to raise and resolve these questions and concerns now, to help prevent any unwanted and unintended negative consequences before this draft bill were to move forward.

Mr. Chairman, we greatly appreciate the meaningful dialogue and cooperation we have had with the Committee’s professional staff on both sides of the aisle, helping us to better understand this draft bill.  We are grateful for their willingness to work with us to address our concerns, and we look forward to continuing to work together with the bill’s sponsors in this regard.  However, since this issue was not addressed in our most recent Independent Budget released in February, 2013, and because we still have many unanswered questions about this draft bill as highlighted by this testimony and our discussions with staff, we do not have a position on this draft bill.

This concludes our testimony and we would be happy to answer any questions that you and Members of the Committee may have.

Information Required by Rule XI 2(g)(4) of the House of Representatives

Pursuant to Rule XI 2(g)(4) of the House of Representatives, the following information is provided regarding federal grants and contracts.

Fiscal Year 2013

No federal grants or contracts received.

Fiscal Year 2012

No federal grants or contracts received.

Fiscal Year 2011

Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, administered by the Legal Services Corporation — National Veterans Legal Services Program— $262,787.

William Carl Blake
National Legislative Director
Paralyzed Veterans of America
801 18th Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20006
(202) 416-7708

Carl Blake is the National Legislative Director for Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) at PVA’s National Office in Washington, D.C.  He is responsible for the planning, coordination, and implementation of PVA’s relations with the United States Congress and federal departments and agencies.  He develops and executes PVA’s Washington agenda in areas of budget, appropriations, health care, and veterans’ benefits issues.  He also represents PVA to federal agencies including the Department of Defense, Department of Labor, Small Business Administration, and the Office of Personnel Management.  

Carl was raised in Woodford, Virginia.  He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.  He received a Bachelor of Science Degree from the Military Academy in May 1998.  

Upon graduation from the Military Academy, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Infantry in the United States Army.  He was assigned to the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (1st Brigade) of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  He graduated from Infantry Officer Basic Course, U.S. Army Ranger School, U.S. Army Airborne School, and Air Assault School.  His awards include the Army Commendation Medal, Expert Infantryman’s Badge, and German Parachutist Badge.  Carl retired from the military in October 2000 due to injuries suffered during a parachute training exercise.

Carl is a member of the Virginia-Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Carl lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia with his wife Venus, son Jonathan and daughter Brooke.