Congress: Honor Veterans by Acting Now | Commentary

Posted November 10, 2014 at 5:10pm

Veterans Day should be more than a once-a-year occasion for elected officials to pay tribute to the brave Americans who sacrificed and suffered to keep our nation free. It should also be a day when they ask themselves whether our government is doing enough to uphold the sacred compact we make with our veterans — that in exchange for their service, a grateful nation will do everything possible to ease their burdens and create opportunities for them to lead high quality lives when they return.

If members of Congress take the time to reflect and answer this question honestly, they can come to only one reasonable conclusion: They need to do more, much more. And they need to do it now, before more veterans fall through the cracks.

The Veterns’ Affairs health care access crisis exposed how badly we are failing to keep the faith with our veterans. Many years of inadequate funding, budget gimmickry and lengthy funding delays have stretched the VA’s capacity to the breaking point, made competent management of the agency next to impossible, and ultimately resulted in veterans waiting months to receive the care they needed.

While Congress did pass legislation that will temporarily provide some veterans additional health care options and infuse VA with additional short term resources, this is only the first step towards rebuilding the VA. Further reforms are urgently needed. In particular, there are two pressing areas that Congress can and must take action on during the lame duck session that’s about to begin.

First, we must end the annual travesty of endless VA budget delays. Congressional dysfunction and gridlock has resulted in VA appropriations bills passing well after the start of the fiscal year 23 of the past 26 years – including the current one. Without a timely budget, the VA is left without knowing what overall level of funding it will receive each year or when it will arrive.

Congress has an opportunity to fix this perpetual problem by passing the Putting Veterans Funding First Act, bipartisan, non-controversial legislation that would guarantee timely VA budgets.

This bill would authorize the entire VA budget to receive advance appropriations, as is currently done for the VA health care system. It would ensure that VA knows its funding levels before the start of each fiscal year so that can properly manage their resources, It would shield veterans programs from disruptions caused from stop-gap continuing resolutions or government shutdowns, like the one that occurred last October.

The Putting Veterans Funding First Act was approved overwhelmingly by both the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees last year but has not yet been scheduled for a vote in either chamber.

Fortunately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has agreed to bring the bill up for a vote before the end of the year where it is expected to pass. It would be disappointing if this legislation was blocked due to procedural or political maneuvers by either party. If passed in the Senate, the focus would then shift to the House, where VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., is the bill’s sponsor and Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., has publicly supported the legislation. House leadership would be hard pressed not to bring this bipartisan, budget-neutral bill to the floor for a final vote.

The second action Congress should take is to make the VA budget match its mission. The plain truth is that the VA scandal was avoidable. Access constraints were caused by the failure to allocate sufficient resources. Meeting the needs of the influx of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and the aging of Vietnam-era veterans requires more funding than Congress has yet provided. Contrary to past practice, even the VA has acknowledged this with a request for additional appropriations.

Before adjourning, it is essential that Congress complete work on VA’s full-year budget — already 42 days late as of Veterans Day — and that it provide sufficient funding levels for veterans programs and services so that all enrolled and eligible veterans receive the services they have been promised.

It’s a simple principle: When our government decides to put brave Americans in harm’s way, it commits itself not only to funding war operations, but also to funding the medical and other needs of veterans after they have returned home.

This Veterans Day, it’s long past time for Congress to keep the promise and uphold its responsibilities to those who answer the call to defend America. That would be at least one significant victory with which to end the 113th Congress — and it would set a positive tone before the start of the 114th.

Garry Augustine is executive director of the Washington Headquarters of the 1.2 million member Disabled American Veterans, which empowers veterans to lead high-quality lives with respect and dignity.