21 May 2014 Legislative News Update
weekly electronic newsletter, and is published
every Monday when Congress is in session.
In this issue:
- Capitol Focus
--VA Under Fire: Apparently everyone is “madder than hell” over the reported problems within the Veterans’ Administration’s medical system. Well maybe not everyone, but the president and the secretary of the VA are. Or so they said.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said on a Sunday morning interview show that President Obama is "madder than hell" over delays at VA hospitals that may have contributed to the deaths of patients, and is determined to make improvements. “The president’s demanding that we get to the bottom of the exact allegations that you're talking about as it relates to whether veterans are getting the timely access to care that they have earned,” McDonough said.
Earlier in the week at a hearing before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said “any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct are taken seriously. He added, “I now have this great privilege of being able to care for people I went to war with many years ago, and people I have sent to war, and people who raised me in the profession when I was a youngster, any allegation, any adverse incidents like this, makes me as -- makes me mad as hell. I could use stronger language here, Mr. Chairman, but in deference to the committee, I won't.”
Shinseki said that preliminary results of an audit he ordered into appointment systems at all VA facilities had resulted in some scheduling “concerns” and that the VA’s Inspector General (IG) had been alerted. According to VA, the final report of the audit is expected in approximately three weeks.
Allegations that 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments or referrals at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health System, are among the most serious to come to light. News reports have also uncovered allegations of similar care delay problems in Colorado, Texas, North Carolina and Georgia.
--VA Official Resigns? What has lawmakers really riled up is Shinseki’s announcement that a top VA official was asked to resign over the allegations. However, the VA's Undersecretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel’s retirement was announced in September 2013 and, in fact, the president announced Petzel’s replacement two weeks ago.
"Today's announcement from the VA regarding Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel's ‘resignation’ is the pinnacle of disingenuous political doublespeak," Chairman Jeff Miller of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said in a statement. "Petzel was already scheduled to retire in 2014 and President Obama has already announced his intention to nominate Petzel's replacement, so characterizing this as a 'resignation' just doesn't pass the smell test."
--Durbin: Defense Spending Bill will Move Earlier Sen. Richard Durbin, chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said that the Defense spending bill will be drafted by the first week of July, several weeks earlier than in recent years. The earlier deadline is a clear indication that appropriators want to move spending bills faster.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has been meeting regularly and will begin marking up its bills at the end of the month, likely beginning with the Military Construction/ Veterans Affairs bill and the Agriculture bill. Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., has indicated her desire to return to regular order as it pertains to the appropriations process.
Whether or not the bills move to the floor earlier is still up in the air. We are encouraged by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s statement that he will grant Mikulski room on the floor during the last two weeks of June and the first two weeks of July to pass her committee's bills. If both chambers pass all 12 bills before the August recess, they'll have the entire month of September to go to conference and work out their differences.
We choose to be optimistic because running the Army under continuing resolutions is a bad way to do business!
--Administration Issues Veto Threat against Defense Policy Bill. Debate by the full House on dozens of amendments and subsequent passage of the Howard P. “Buck” McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 is expected to be completed by the end of this week.
In response, the Administration has issued a veto threat against the measure.
Released on May 19, the Statement of Administration Policy says, “If the bill presented to the President impedes the ability of the Administration to properly direct scarce resources for our military, or continues unwarranted restrictions regarding detainees, the President’s senior advisors would recommend to the President that he veto the bill.”
At issue are provisions in the bill that pertain to:
Guantanamo Detainee Restrictions: The Administration strongly objects to sections in the bill that would prohibit the use of funds for the construction or modification of any facility to house Guantanamo detainees in the United States and for the transfer of detainees to the United States.
Compensation Reform: The Administration strongly encourages members of Congress to support reforms that would “slow the growth of basic pay and housing allowances, modernize military healthcare, and reform how commissaries operate.” The statement also acknowledges the comprehensive study currently underway by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, but says that “delaying DOD's holistic package of proposed initial changes will only result in increased costs and risks to the force.”
Restricting Army National Guard and Active Army Force Structure Changes: The Administration strongly objects provisions in the bill “which would limit Army National Guard and Active Army force structure changes. As DOD transitions out of a decade of war, military end strength and force structure changes are necessary to shape a force that is more agile and technologically superior and ready to respond to requirements. These changes are necessary to allow DOD to make necessary investments in readiness, modernization, and training.”
Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC): The Administration strongly objects to the Armed Services refusal to allow another round of BRAC.
Work on the Senate’s version of the bill started this week. The subcommittees of the Armed Services Committee will mark up their portions followed by a mark up by the full committee later this week. No idea yet when the measure will go to the Senate floor for passage.