Honorable Chairman Jeff Miller
Good morning. Welcome to this morning’s legislative hearing. Today we will receive testimony on three bills. The first is a bill I introduced along with Ranking Member Michaud, H.R. 813, the “Putting Veterans Funding First Act of 2013.” The second, H.R. 806, is a bill introduced by Ms. Brownley. And the third is a bill I, again, have joined the Ranking Member in introducing, the “Department of Veterans Affairs Budget Planning Reform Act of 2013.” I will now focus my opening remarks on H.R. 813.
As my colleagues are aware, just over 4 years ago, Congress started providing VA’s medical care budget one year in advance. The reason behind the law that directed this change in practice was simple: a full-year appropriations bill for VA had been enacted on time in only 4 of the prior 20 years.
According to veterans’ organizations and VA officials, delayed appropriations inhibited the ability of program administrators to plan effectively. Thus, the hiring of doctors and nurses was delayed, medical equipment purchases were put off, and veterans experienced unacceptable wait times for medical appointments due to rationing. By providing the medical care budget in advance, no longer would funding for VA’s health system be held hostage to Washington gridlock.
I had hoped that things would improve in the intervening years, but unfortunately not much has changed. We’re still lurching forward with stop-gap funding measures and periodic threats of government shut downs.
When I introduced the Putting Veterans Funding First Act earlier this year all of government was operating under a Continuing Resolution. It wasn’t until March, nearly six months into the fiscal year, when a full year appropriation was finally enacted. So although VA health care was protected, the other 14 percent of VA discretionary spending was held in limbo. VA information technology systems, claims processing, facility construction, medical research projects, veterans’ cemeteries…full-year funding for all of these items was in doubt till the very end.
Well, here we are, yet again, with the status of next year’s appropriations bills up in the air. There is no agreed-upon budget framework. The House and the Senate are miles apart on appropriations measures. And the Administration has even issued a veto threat on the House-passed funding bill for VA for reasons that have nothing to do with the bill itself. Once more, political calculations having nothing to do with veterans are putting our collective support for funding of their benefits and services at risk.
Veterans deserve better from us. I listened carefully to the statements of support on the floor for advance appropriations during debate on the FY 2014 VA-Milcon bill. Members of both parties spoke with high praise, with one touting the (quote) “absolute peace of mind and no worries” (end quote) brought to veterans through advance appropriations. I heard another hail it as a (quote) “platform for long-term planning and investment in critical programs,” (end quote). And still another lauded it as providing (quote) “timely and predictable resources,” (end quote).
I agree wholeheartedly. But couldn’t these same statements be applied to funding VA’s information technology program, the backbone of the healthcare system? Or VA’s disability claims processing system, which is trying to surface from a crushing backlog? Or medical facility construction? Or how about the nation’s veterans’ cemeteries? Each area requires advance planning for staffing, equipment, or contract services…all of that is made more difficult when there is no certainty of what the full-year funding level will be. The Putting Veterans Funding First Act would end the uncertainty by ensuring VA has its full discretionary appropriation well before the fiscal year begins.
I am grateful for the support the bill has garnered across a wide spectrum of veterans’ organizations. I believe H.R. 813 is entirely consistent with the protections afforded veterans funding in law today. VA is exempt from sequester, and it receives 86 percent of its discretionary funding already in advance. H.R. 813 just goes that extra mile.
In the face of dysfunction that exists at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, this is one area where we can continue to get it right. I thank my colleagues who have already supported the bill, and ask those who haven’t to join us in truly Putting Veterans’ Funding First.
I now recognize the Ranking Member for his statement.