July 19, 2005
The continuing funding shortfall for veterans

I've written before about the way the Bush Administration has tried to shaft the Veterans' Affairs Department by grossly underestimating its budgetary needs. At long last, they've owned up to this failure.

The Bush administration admitted yesterday that its request for veterans' health care in fiscal 2006 is short by nearly $2 billion and asked Congress to fund the shortfall.

The request comes two weeks after the administration conceded that the 2005 amount passed by Congress and signed by the president -- already more than Mr. Bush had requested -- was short and that Congress must pass a $975 million emergency spending bill to make up the difference.

Although the House passed that $975 million request, over the objection of Democrats who sought still more, the Senate has twice passed amendments to spending bills calling for an additional $1.5 billion in 2005.

Though they may have admitted to the problem, they still haven't accepted any responsibility for it.

White House Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua B. Bolten testified to the House Budget Committee yesterday that part of the problem is that Congress and the Bush administration had overspent from 2002 to 2004.

"The appropriations have exceeded the VA medical care needs in the preceding three years by over half a billion dollars in each of the preceding three years," Mr. Bolten said, according to Democrats on the committee, who said they were "appalled" by the statement.

"Anyone willing to visit our VA hospitals would know that there are hiring freezes, delays in veterans getting doctor's appointments and postponement of important medical equipment purchases because VA health-care funding has not kept up with veterans' needs," said Rep. Chet Edwards, Texas Democrat.

When I last wrote about this, the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, chaired by our very own Kay Bailey Hutchison, was attempting to clean up its own mess. They've taken steps in that direction, though as Greg notes, KBH has been pretty hostile to the needs of veterans lately. (On the plus side, she's been a great friend to her constituents up in Alaska. So she's got that going for her.) The main villains in this drama have been the House Republican leadership, which of course means you-know-who.

Fellow Republicans warned House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay more than a year ago that the government would come up short by at least $750 million for veterans' health care. The leaders' response: Fire the messengers.

Now that the Bush administration has acknowledged a shortfall of at least $1.2 billion, embarrassed Republicans are scrambling to fill the gap. Meanwhile, Democrats portray the problem as another example of the GOP and the White House taking a shortsighted approach to the cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and criticize their commitment to the troops.

New Jersey Rep. Chris Smith, as chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, had told the House GOP leadership that the Veterans Affairs Department needed at least $2.5 billion more in its budget. The Senate passed a bill with that increase; the House's bill was $750 million short.

Smith and 30 other Republicans wrote to their leaders in March 2004 to make the point that lawmakers who were not the usual outspoken advocates for veterans were troubled by the move. Failure to come up with the additional $2.5 billion, they contended, could mean higher co-payments and "rationing of health care services, leading to long waiting times or other equally unacceptable reductions in services to veterans."

Still, the House ignored them.

Smith was rebuked by several Republicans for sounding the spending alarm, and House leaders yanked his chairmanship in January. Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Conn., lost his chairmanship of the VA health subcommittee, and Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., is no longer on the committee. They too had signed the letters to Hastert, R-Ill., and DeLay, R-Texas.

Robert Novak, who knows a thing or two about hatchet jobs, fills in some of the blanks (link via The Stakeholder).

Smith's problem has been failing to salute smartly when the leadership gives an order. That is the demand of Tom DeLay, the most effective majority leader in my 45 years of House-watching. DeLay found it intolerable that Smith functioned not as an obedient Republican soldier but as a fervent advocate of former U.S. foot soldiers. At the end of the last Congress, the DeLay-headed leadership purged Smith from the Veterans chairmanship and from the committee itself for wanting $2.6 billion more for the Veterans Administration (VA).

Smith's vindication came June 28 when the Bush administration admitted that its estimate of 23,553 veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan for medical treatment fell far short of the real number: 103,000. The VA's reason was that it relied on two-year-old assumptions. The administration estimated its need for additional funds, coincidentally or not, at Smith's $2.6 billion.

Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, who was leapfrogged by the Republican leadership over two more senior congressmen to replace Smith as chairman, at first followed the party line by saying the shortfall could be covered by shifting funds. However, Buyer quickly had to change his position and say more funds were needed, just as Smith had insisted all along.

Before Congress adjourned for its Independence Day recess, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi led a parade of Democrats chiding the administration for its blunder. There will be more of the same when the 2006 VA appropriations bill comes up for House and Senate votes the week of July 25. Republicans have been silent, but some in the House were smirking over Smith's vindication. There is little doubt that Smith would easily have defeated Buyer had there been an open vote of the House Republican Conference without leadership intervention.

Similarly, Smith would be the conference's most likely choice for the International Relations Committee chairmanship against two other well-regarded conservatives, Reps. Dan Burton of Indiana and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. But the choice will be made by the DeLay-dominated Steering Committee, and so Smith is a long shot.

Just a few things to keep in mind when people talk about "supporting the troops". I'm including a lengthier response by Rep. Chet Edwards to this issue beneath the fold.

Edwards Reacts To Administration Admission of $2 Billion VA Shortfall

Says OMB Director Is Dead Wrong in Saying VA Health Care Has Been Over-Funded

(Washington)- After the Administration submitted yet another request for veterans' health care, U.S. Representative Chet Edwards called on Congress to immediately remedy the shortfall for this year. The Administration officially requested an additional $2 billion to cover shortfalls in the Veterans Affairs budget for 2005 and 2006 late Thursday. The new request would provide an additional $300 million for this year, on top of the $975 million that the White House submitted two weeks ago, and an additional $1.7 billion for the upcoming year.

"Just 15 days ago, the VA testified that $975 million would cover the VA shortfall in 2005. Senate Republicans and Democrats in both the Senate and House felt the real shortfall was larger, but the VA and House Republican leadership said "No".

Now the Administration has revised its numbers yet again. Congress should not wait another day to provide our veterans the health care they need now.

Even with this correction to the correction, I believe VA healthcare will be woefully under funded in 2006 because the number assumes that Congress will double prescription drug co-pays and impose a new enrollment fee on veterans making over $30,000 annually. Congress has repeatedly sent a clear message that it will not.

But the criticism surrounding the VA funding shortfall didn't have to happen. Democrats and some Republicans have warned since 2003 that increased funding was needed to address growing VA needs. Chris Smith, the Republican chairman of House VA Committee, was fired by House leadership as chairman and removed from the committee altogether for alerting the House Budget Committee of this fact in 2004.

Resistance to veterans' funding continued in 2005 when the House Budget Resolution cut VA healthcare by $14 billion over the next five years. That budget said, in effect, if you make $1 million a year in dividend income, you can keep every dime in your $220,000 a year tax cut, but if you serve our country in uniform, we will have to cut corners on your medical care," said Edwards.

The $2 billion request to cover VA budget shortfalls in 2005 and 2006 comes after director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Joshua Bolten testified yesterday before the House Budget Committee that the Administration and Congress spent too much money on VA healthcare from 2002-2004.

Bolten: "There have been 3 consecutive years preceding this one in which there was more money requested by the Administration and more money appropriated by the Congress for the medical care portion of veterans services than was actually needed in that year. The appropriations have exceeded the VA medical care needs in the preceding three years by over half a billion dollars in each of the preceding three years."

Edwards disagreed.

"I am appalled that Mr. Bolten is so out of touch with the needs of our VA healthcare system. We are facing a VA healthcare crisis today in large part due to the under funding of this important priority over the past four years. In January 2003, the VA was so short of funds that it had to block veterans from enrolling in the VA system if they had no service connected injury and made more than $30,000.

It appears to me that Mr. Bolten is spending too much time in Washington D.C. and too little time listening to veterans and visiting veterans hospitals. Every major veterans organization including the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), American Legion, and VFW have been pleading with the White House budget office for more funding over the past several years to prevent cuts in VA healthcare services.

It is not surprising to me that Congress will have to fund $2.5 billion over the Administration's request for VA healthcare in 2005, given that the OMB director thinks we have been spending too much money on veterans healthcare. Anyone willing to visit our VA hospitals would know that there are hiring freezes, delays in veterans getting doctor's appointments, and postponement of important medical equipment purchases because VA healthcare funding has not kept up with veterans needs.

I realize it is expensive to pay for veterans healthcare during a time of war, but it is morally wrong not to do so. For the benefit of American veterans, I would urge Mr. Bolten to get out of his Washington D.C. office and make firsthand visits to VA hospitals to realize the impact of having under-funded veterans healthcare over the last four years," said Edwards.

Edwards serves on the Budget Committee and is the ranking member of the Military Quality of Life and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 19, 2005 to National news | TrackBack

I've written before about the way the Bush Administration has tried to shaft the Veterans' Affairs Department by grossly underestimating its budgetary needs.

I don't read your past post that way. It's mainly just a bunch of blockquoting. I don't see much in the way of direct criticism from you.

Are you now asserting that the Bush Administration intentionally underestimated the budget to shaft the VA?

The "tried to shaft" formulation makes it seem that way, but that seems like a pretty rash charge.

Posted by: kevin whited on July 19, 2005 8:32 PM

Chet Edwards video from his floor speech


Posted by: salon on July 20, 2005 12:17 AM

Kevin, the assertion that the administration "intentionally underestimated" the VA budget is just democratic fustian. Novak made no such charge in his column, and as well, there have been no "cutbacks" in vet med care.

Rather, this is about politics. The professional Washington staffers who run the DAV, American Legion and VFW are drumming up this issue to put pressure on congress to achieve their long-term goal of mandatory funding legislation for VA med care, to replace the existing system of yearly discretionary funding.

To put it another way, they want to turn it into an entitlement, which it absolutely has never been, as opposed to a discretionary care system.

This would mean that a guy who served in peace time as a clerk at Ft Hood and who later injured himself in a car wreck would get the same life-time med benefits as a guy who lost his leg in combat in Iraq.

The professional vet group staffers in DC know with a war going on they have a better chance of pressuring the congress. While the democrats have opposed mandatory funding in past decades, right now they are hoping to score political points with the issue.

This year's budget shortfall was caused by a doubling of demand for medical services from other vets, and *not* from the needs of wounded combat vets from Afg and Iraq.

In truth the administration increased VA med funding by $1.6 billion for this year and the VA is handling shortfalls by shifting money from construction projects and other areas.

Chet Edwards' letter is disingenuous, for example he writes: "Every major veterans organization ... [has] been pleading with the White House ... for more funding over the past several years to prevent cuts in VA healthcare services." In fact, as Chet Edwards well knows, professional staffers of these groups have been advoicating this for decades.

The idea that the administration is "shafting" veterans because it won't adopt mandatory funding is also disinegenuous. VA med care has never been an entitlement, it has never been given equally to all US vets and US vets have always been classed into different eligibility groups.

Posted by: ttyler5 on July 20, 2005 8:42 AM