Witness Testimony of Mr. Ryan Gallucci, Deputy Legislative Director, Veterans of Foreign Wars
Chairman Flores, Ranking Member Takano and members of the Subcommittee, on behalf of the men and women of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (VFW) and our Auxiliaries, I want to thank you for the opportunity to present the VFW’s stance on legislation pending before this Subcommittee.
With deep proposed reductions in the military’s active duty force, the VFW believes that offering quality transitional, educational and career-development opportunities for the men and women slated to leave military service remains a national imperative.
We thank this committee for its hard work in the first session of the 113th Congress moving critical legislation to make this possible – particularly the recently-passed in-state tuition protection for college-bound veterans. The VFW encourages you to continue your bipartisan work to improve civilian training and career opportunities for our veterans, and we look forward to working with you to accomplish this critical mission.
H.R. 2942, to amend title 38, United States Code, to reestablish the Professional Certification and Licensure Advisory Committee of the Department of Veterans Affairs:
The VFW supports Rep. Kirkpatrick’s bill, which will extend a critical advisory committee on professional licenses and certifications for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). At a time when the Department of Labor anticipates a significant influx of veterans into the civilian workforce, VA must have the ability to evaluate professional licenses and certifications for which veterans may choose to use their earned education benefits. This advisory committee provides critical expertise to VA with which to evaluate professional licenses and credentials.
The VFW has long acknowledged that not all veterans entitled to VA education benefits will choose to use those benefits for a traditional college degree. This is why we fully support allowing veterans to use these benefits for relevant professional training, as well as licensure and certification evaluations that will lead to quality careers.
H.R. 3056, Warriors’ Peer-Outreach Pilot Program Act:
The VFW supports Rep. Takano’s efforts to better understand the positive impact of peer support for student veterans going back to college. However, we have concerns over this bill’s proposal to commission a pilot program on peer-to-peer support for student veterans.
The VFW already believes that peer support works and we believe this can be demonstrated through the rapid growth of nearly 1,000 Student Veterans of America (SVA) chapters on college campuses around the country. VFW posts in college communities have also helped to cultivate significant peer-to-peer support for student veterans on college campuses with tremendous success for future veteran leaders.
VA has also commissioned two unique programs designed to serve student veterans on college campuses, VetSuccess on Campus (VSOC) and Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership (VITAL), which offer unique VA support services to veterans. VSOC assists veterans on more than 90 campuses and VITAL was recently expanded to 15 campuses. In 2010, the Department of Education also awarded grants to 15 college campuses to commission Centers of Excellence for Veteran Student Success (CEVSS) to deliver support services to student veterans.
VSOC, VITAL and CEVSS all have the authority to hire student veterans as VA WorkStudy participants, and many campuses are already taking advantage of this resource to deliver peer-to-peer services. The VFW believes that Congress should look to these programs to better understand how to best deliver peer-to-peer support services to veterans on campus.
Finally, the VFW supports Rep. Takano’s goal to report on the efficacy of peer-to-peer support services for veterans in higher education. However, in lieu of commissioning three new peer support programs, the VFW recommends identifying current peer-to-peer support programs commissioned through the VA WorkStudy program to support VSOC, VITAL and CEVSS, and reporting on their efficacy.
To properly reflect the diverse experiences of veterans in higher education and to produce a quality report on the success of peer support in higher education, the VFW recommends expanding the proposed report to reflect a geographically diverse selection of four-year public schools, community colleges, and private non-profit universities; as well as examples of non-profit online programs, elite non-profit schools, for-profit campus-based programs, and for-profit online programs.
The VFW agrees with Rep. Takano that we know far too little about the experiences of student veterans in higher education. The first statistically valid report on student veteran outcomes in higher education was released by SVA only earlier this week. The VFW supports studying examples of current peer support models to demonstrate success, and we look forward to working with Rep. Takano and the subcommittee to make this happen.
H.R. 3614, Military Skills to Careers Act:
The VFW supported this bill’s Senate companion, S. 492, in testimony last year, and we support Rep. Flores’ efforts to help close the civilian/military licensing and credentialing gap. This bill takes reasonable steps to ensure that states will allow experienced military professionals to sit for licensing exams, while still ensuring states have the autonomy to issue professional licenses as they see fit. States will not have to relax their standards for professionals operating within their borders, but experienced veterans will not be unnecessarily burdened with satisfying duplicative training requirements.
However, the VFW has some concerns over the specific language of this bill, and we want to work with the subcommittee to ensure that states will not be penalized for holding military-trained professionals to standards established by professional trade associations, but enforced by the states through licensing procedures.
H.R. 4031, Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014:
Chairman Miller’s bill would provide the Secretary the authority to remove a Senior Executive Service (SES) employee based on performance. Accountability within VA management is a growing concern. Without defined authority to remove an SES employee from a position or from employment, accountability for poor performance will never be reached.
Section 7543 of title 5, U.S.C., provides the authority to suspend or remove a member of the SES. This provision of law provides for two things: First, an agency may remove or suspend a senior executive only for misconduct, neglect of duty, malfeasance, or failure to accept a direct reassignment. Second, it provides that members of the SES are entitled to at least 30 days advance written notice of why disciplinary action is being proposed, at least 7 days to respond to the notice for suspension or removal, representation by an attorney or other representative, and a written decision with specific reasons. The agency may also provide for a hearing to allow the SES member a chance to answer questions. The problem with this scenario is that it allows SES employees to engage in a perpetual back-and-forth with their superiors through archaic legal processes. This means that SES employees can rarely be sanctioned or removed for poor performance, as Chairman Miller has rightly pointed out.
This bill will provide the Secretary the authority to remove SES employees when the Secretary determines that poor work performance warrants such removal. While it is important for the Secretary to have the ability to quickly remove employees, and specifically members of the SES, it is also important to recognize that members of the SES are career employees who serve as the link between political appointees and the civil service employees of the department, and that allowing removal without due process or the ability to appeal could jeopardize the unique roll of the SES.
The VFW would support this legislation if it were amended to place a 30 day limitation, with one opportunity for an additional 30 day extension, on the title 5 provision that allows at least 7 days for an SES employee to respond to the notice of suspension or removal. This would force notified SES members to quickly respond to their notification, thereby decreasing the time it takes to remove an underperforming SES member. SES members must also retain their appeal rights through the Merit Systems Protection Board. These changes would send a clear message to underperforming employees, but provide needed protection for positions that were designed to provide and retain institutional knowledge and reduce cronyism.
H.R. 4037, Improving Veterans’ Access to Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Act of 2014:
The VFW supports the intent of Rep. Flores’ bill to ensure that VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) Program has the ability to provide rehabilitative services to veterans who need it the most. The VFW also supports Flores’ initiative to more accurately measure success within the program.
By design, VR&E is supposed to offer intensive rehabilitative services to veterans who must be retrained in a new civilian industry because of their service-connected disability. Under current law, any veteran with a service-connected rating of 10 percent or more is eligible for VR&E.
Through this legislation, Rep. Flores hopes to ensure that VR&E can continue to meet an increasing demand for rehabilitative services among veterans who need it the most – specifically disabled veterans with significant barriers to employment.
The VFW understands that VR&E in its current form is nearly at capacity for offering rehabilitative services to disabled veterans. According to VA’s own data, VR&E counselors are already working beyond a reasonable capacity, with counselors serving veterans at a ratio of 145:1, when VA’s standard of service is 125:1. With more and more service members projected to leave the military in the coming years, the VFW shares Rep. Flores’ concerns that VR&E may not be able to adequately serve the veterans who will need it the most if changes are not made to the current system.
However, the VFW worries that restricting eligibility for VR&E will lead to some disabled veterans falling through the cracks. Though the VFW cannot support this bill in its current form, we look forward to working with Rep. Flores to develop meaningful reforms for VR&E that will ensure VA can deliver quality rehabilitative service to veterans who need it without restricting access.
H.R. 4038, Veterans Benefits Administration Information Technology Improvement Act of 2014:
The VFW supports Rep. Flores’ bill to ensure that VA prioritizes the completion of its information technology (IT) solution for processing VA education benefit claims. The VFW acknowledges the significant progress VA has made in the timeliness and accuracy of its GI Bill benefit processing. However, we share the subcommittee’s concerns that as Veterans Benefits Administration sees success in education benefit processing, they have now shifted resources to focus solely on the disability claims backlog. The VFW understands VBA’s urgency in seeking to resolve the backlog, but we must not neglect the mission to properly serve student veterans. By completing the IT solution, we ensure that education benefits can continue to be processed in a timely, accurate manner.
H.R. 4147, the Student Veterans IT Upgrade Act:
The VFW supports Rep. Takano’s bill to commission a report to Congress on the status of VA’s education IT systems. Similar to H.R. 4038, the VFW believes that VBA has an obligation to process timely and accurate education benefits. Critical to this is the development and completion of VBA’s education IT systems. This report is a responsible way to demonstrate progress in IT development, identify potential shortcomings and develop a course of action to complete tasks. To the VFW, this bill is responsible governance and we support its quick passage.
H.R. 4151, the Veterans Education Survey Act of 2014:
The VFW proudly supports Rep. Bilirakis’ efforts to commission a survey of student veterans currently using their earned GI Bill benefits. Without statistically valid information on the student veteran experience or student veteran outcomes, these special interests groups in higher education have been able to make vague assertions about the student veteran population based off of assumptions drawn from incomplete Department of Education data. While the VFW can only speculate as to their motives, we believe this false narrative does a disservice to the 1 million beneficiaries currently enrolled in VA education benefit programs and threatens the long-term viability of programs like the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
For example, some special interests point to low graduation rates among student veterans at schools with high military populations like American Military University and University of Maryland University College as indications that these schools fail to properly serve their student veterans. What is missing from this narrative is that the graduation rate reported by these schools to the Department of Education likely includes very few, if any, veterans, since the Department of Education counts only first time, full time students.
Student veterans – particularly student veterans who enroll in non-traditional programs like those offered by AMU or UMUC – usually start their studies on a part-time basis while serving in the military, or they bring significant transfer credits into their programs after completing military service, meaning they are never considered first time, full time students, and thus are never tracked by the Department of Education.
Moreover, when the Department of Veterans Affairs recently launched its new comparison tool and the raw data used to compile it, the VFW was surprised to learn of all the programs across higher education that reported abysmally low graduation rates. The VFW took a closer look at many of the schools who reported graduation rates of five percent or lower, only to realize on the Department of Education’s College Navigator website that each of these schools were likely comprised of non-traditional students, like student veterans. Because of these unique circumstances, we often joke that among all of the veterans in our office, none of us are considered a college graduate by Department of Education standards.
Only this week did we start to scratch the surface on understanding how student veterans fare in higher education when SVA released its 1 Million Records Project, tracking outcomes for nearly 1 million veterans who attended college on VA education benefit programs after 9/11. We applaud SVA for its groundbreaking findings, which demonstrated that student veterans fare well in higher education when compared to traditional students as tracked by the Department of Education. However, this report only scratches the surface and does not capture attitudes and impressions of student veterans currently using their GI Bill benefits. This is the gap in information that Rep. Bilirakis’ report would fill in.
The original GI Bill returned $7 to the American economy for every dollar spent on a veteran. Historians credit the original GI Bill for building the American middle class as we know it. The VFW believes that the Post-9/11 GI Bill has the potential to be a similarly transformative benefit for today’s college-bound veterans, but in times of fiscal uncertainty, we have to be able to demonstrate this to the American public. We encourage Congress to quickly pass this legislation to better quantify the experiences of veterans in higher education.
Draft bill, Veterans Employment and Training Service Longitudinal Study Act of 2014:
The VFW has long believed that the services provided by the Department of Labor’s Veterans Employment and Training Service (VETS) could provide a critical gateway for veterans into meaningful civilian employment after military service. The key piece to providing career opportunities rests with Disabled Veterans Outreach Program specialists (DVOPs) and Local Veterans Employment Representatives (LVERs) located at American Jobs Centers around the country. Unfortunately, the VFW has seen that not all DVOPs and LVERs have the same capability, and not all veterans and employers know what they have to offer.
Recently, the VFW was approached by a small business owner in Indiana who was looking to hire a couple of veterans to round out his company. We directed the business to the local LVER. In less than a day the LVER had identified several potential candidates and the business had lined up interviews.
The VFW believes that businesses want to hire veterans, and DVOPs and LVERs stand uniquely poised to make these connections. Unfortunately, we have not properly evaluated what works and what does not work in communities around the country. To better understand the veteran hiring experience, the VFW supports the subcommittee’s draft legislation to conduct a longitudinal study on the outcomes for veterans who utilize DVOP and LVER services. We look forward to working with the committee to pass this legislation.
Chairman Flores, Ranking Member Takano, this concludes my statement and I am happy to answer any questions you may have.
Information Required by Rule XI2(g)(4) of the House of Representatives
Pursuant to Rule XI2(g)(4) of the House of Representatives, VFW has not received any federal grants in Fiscal Year 2013, nor has it received any federal grants in the two previous Fiscal Years.