Rep. Bob Filner’s legendary quick temper and fierce combativeness have landed him in trouble more than once during his two decades in Congress.
Those same attributes have endeared him to a generation of veterans whose organizations have come to depend on the Californian, the ranking member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, to serve as their tribune.
But with Filner’s planned retirement coming at the same time as Congress is looking for ways to pinch every penny, veterans’ groups are privately worried about who will champion their priorities in the 113th Congress and beyond.
Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) is the anti-Filner, with his calm demeanor and serious mien. And, unlike the liberal Filner, who champions government activism across the board, Miller is a conservative who supports his party’s vision of a smaller, less intrusive federal government.
Nobody at or near the top of a veterans organization wants to be seen saying a negative word about Miller — he leads the committee that defines federal policy for their members.
But a number said privately that they wish Miller was more aggressive in pushing for more spending and tougher rhetorically on the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Miller said his style is his style, and it isn’t likely to change.
“I would like to have at least an opportunity to meet with everybody and open the dialogue,” he said. “And I’ve offered to the [veterans service organizations] that if they have somewhere they would like to meet — visit with their memberships — that I’m willing to go and visit with them.”
Officials in some of the powerful lobbying groups refer to Filner as their “bulldog,” one of the kinder epithets that has come his way over the years but not one likely to be hurled, in a kindly way or not, at the mild-mannered Miller.
“When it’s all said and done, who’s going to be the one who’s going to literally follow through on the niceties that are said on Memorial Day and Veterans Day?” said Tim Tetz, legislative director for the American Legion. “Who’s going to be the one pressing for the votes, pressing for the issues? If we find that person, no matter what party they are from, no matter how much seniority they have, that’s the person the veterans’ community will be better off with.”
Veterans’ groups generally agree that Filner’s brash and abrasive in-your-face style of politics helped secure the significant funding increases the VA has enjoyed over the past several years. They also agree they need an advocate, such as Filner, to protect their interests as budget realities begin to catch up with programs once considered untouchable.
“Right now we’re defending the advancements that we made the last two, three, five sessions of Congress,” Tetz said.
VA spending increased from $61.8 billion in fiscal 2004 to $109.6 billion in fiscal 2010, a 77 percent increase, according to the Congressional Research Service. More than half of that is mandatory spending, giving authorizers a stronger than usual voice in setting priorities.
Miller contends that veterans, better than most Americans, grasp the need to get the deficit under control for the good of the country.
“What has been very clear is that they understand where this country is financially and that the last decade we’ve been able to provide record increases in veterans spending,” he said. “But that would not be the case in the future as we try to rein in our deficit and dealing with the vet community, they have all pledged while continuing to serve their memberships and constituencies, to work with the committee to find ways to help [in the delivery of] the services that many of them participate in.”
An Evolving Relationship
Veterans groups were at first wary of Filner, a down-the-line liberal who never served in the military.
He claimed the chairmanship of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee after the Democrats recaptured the House in 2006, besting Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), who continues to serve on the panel and is a candidate to replace Filner as ranking member in the next Congress.
“I think they were nervous about me because I’m a liberal, but I think they saw my commitment and aggressiveness in challenging the bureaucracy,” said Filner, who has served on the committee since first coming to Congress in 1993.
He credits the late Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) for steering him in that direction. Cranston had chaired the Veterans’ Affairs Committee in the other chamber, and urged Filner to seek the House assignment because it was good politics for a liberal to champion the cause of veterans.
Filner’s disdain for the VA became obvious during his long tenure on the panel.
In 2007 he infamously launched a profanity-laced tirade at VA headquarters over the department’s failure to protect veterans’ personal data from computer theft.
Earlier this year he lectured Robert Petzel, the undersecretary for health at the Veterans Health Administration, for the agency’s slowness in responding to safety problems.
“We’ve gone through this before, sir,” Filner told Petzel at a May hearing. “You give me a prepared statement, say everything’s fine, but you neglect the basic issues of communication and accountability.”
Lawmakers who have worked closely with Filner say he is a difficult negotiator who rarely compromises. One Democratic colleague, who has known Filner for three decades, said: “We really don’t know Bob Filner. He doesn’t let us in.”
The list of possible successors for the top Democratic spot on the committee includes, in order of seniority, Reps. Corrine Brown (Fla.) and Silvestre Reyes (Texas) and Michaud. Ultimately, the Democratic Caucus will determine the successor.
So far, none of the possibilities excite veterans’ groups.
Tetz said one person not on that list — Rep. Tim Walz (Minn.), who ranks ninth of 11 Democrats on the committee — “speaks from the heart.”
“That was the unique thing about Mr. Filner,” said Tetz. “He wasn’t a veteran, he was someone who went from literally throwing rocks at veterans to being one of their big advocates. So taking that spirit that he’s had and adding one more level because he is a veteran, Tim Walz is really becoming that bulldog on that committee to say, ‘hey, this is what we need to do, this is what we need to have.’ And setting partisanship aside and saying, ‘let’s make this happen.’”
Veterans groups say they will remember Filner as much for his public tirades as for his legislative accomplishments.
“He has worked very closely with our folks back in the district,” said Raymond Kelley, a national spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “Even if we didn’t always agree with his policy, we know it came from a good heart that wants the best for veterans. He’s always been willing to sit down and discuss the issues and figure out how to solve them collectively.”
Filner’s years-long effort to win compensation payments to Filipino veterans who served in World War II bore fruit when a provision to provide $198 million of already-appropriated money to make payments to about 18,000 surviving Filipino veterans was included in the 2009 stimulus package.
Miller voted against the stimulus, but has also been a supporter of payments for Filipino veterans who fought with U.S. forces.
“On most issues, we both want the best for our veterans,” Miller said of Filner. “I don’t think that is ever in doubt. We might disagree ideologically how best to support our vets, but that is what makes our relationship so much fun. We are able to disagree and agree at the same time.”
That might not be enough to satisfy veterans’ groups.
“We will miss Filner a lot,” said Thomas Zampieri, director of governmental relations with the Blinded Veterans Association.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.