WASHINGTON — Nobody wants veterans used as political pawns. Stopping that from happening is another matter.
On Wednesday, lawmakers from the House and Senate veterans affairs committee rallied with veterans advocacy groups outside the Capitol in support of plans to fully fund all VA operations a year in advance, to remove those support programs from partisan congressional budget fights.
“This would ensure that all the veterans benefits they earned, that they deserve, will be delivered to them,” said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Ala. “We need to make sure our veterans are not being used as a political football.”
Veterans groups said that has already happened.
During last month’s partial government shutdown, lawmakers from both parties warned that the political gridlock was threatening veterans benefits and a host of other support programs. The World War II Memorial became a popular photo-op for the statements, with veterans touring the somewhat-closed site as a backdrop.
Those claims came despite initial assertions from VA officials that the shutdown would not have a major impact on everyday operations.
About 86 percent of VA’s annual budget is approved a full year in advance. Congress made that change back in 2009 to make sure critical veterans programs -- like hospital operations and health care research -- weren’t disrupted by annual delays to the congressional appropriations process.
Supporters want to make that 100 percent.
Leaders from groups like Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion said unless veterans programs are completely insulated from the budget fights, veterans will become part of the partisan blame game.
They want President Barack Obama to publicly back the idea and are planning a national campaign to rally support. The House and Senate have had bills on advance VA funding pending for months but have seen little progress.
VA leaders aren’t publicly supportive of the change. In a statement, Department officials said Congress should spend more time getting budget work finished and less time playing politics.
“The best way to care for Veterans is for Congress to provide full funding for VA and the entire government each year,” the statement said. “VA is closely linked to many other agencies … without budgets for (them), VA is significantly less effective in serving our veterans, servicemembers, their families, and survivors.”
House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said comments like that show administration officials are the ones using veterans as pawns.
“They politicized the shutdown, and they’re being political with statements like this,” he said.
He accused the VA of hyping the effects of the government shutdown, threatening benefits and services that should have been exempt. He also noted that House Republicans have passed several appropriations bills this year, only to see them stall in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
“Because Congress is unable to get its work done on time, we need to add consistency to the rest of the veterans budget,” he said.
Miller said House leaders have agreed to listen to the advance funding proposal, but “there’s still a lot of educating to do” before they support it. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said he’ll hold a hearing on the proposal next month.
Meanwhile, lawmakers must reach a new government-wide budget proposal by mid-January or face the same government shutdown threats and veterans program problems.