Veteran Affairs Spending Bill Must Pass

While there is little doubt that it is a very contentious time to be in Washington, there is one issue on which it is easy to find broad, bipartisan agreement:  our government must improve the healthcare and support we owe those veterans who have defended our Nation in wartime.  

So why have the House and Senate versions of the Fiscal Year 2008 Military Construction-Veterans Affairs appropriations bill — passed by both chambers with overwhelming majorities in June — not yet been reconciled and sent to the President’s desk?  The answer is an astonishingly cynical and unconscionable effort by Democratic leaders to use the veterans spending bill as leverage to prevent President Bush from vetoing a sprawling, pork-laden, domestic spending bill.

Recognizing that the VA system faces an enormous challenge in dealing with the long-term care needs of veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the increasing needs of aging Vietnam, Korea and World War II-era veterans, both the House and Senate VA funding bills include historic increases in spending on veterans’ benefits.  The military construction portion of the bill makes critical investments in state-of-the-art training facilities and a wide range of quality-of-life improvements for military families.

Despite the fact that only two Members voted against the bill in the House and one in the Senate, Democratic leaders have for nearly four months failed in their responsibility to appoint members to the conference committee that would reconcile the minor differences between the two versions — a necessary step before the bill can be sent to the President.

  Instead, they chose to lump the $65 billion VA and military construction bill in with a $150.7 billion spending bill for the Departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services.  At this late stage of his presidency, Mr. Bush has rediscovered his commitment to fiscal discipline and threatened to veto a series of bloated, unrestrained domestic spending bills such as this one.  I applaud him for it.  

At a time of war, there is no excuse for tolerating such useless extravagancies as the $1 million requested by Sen. Hilary Clinton for a museum celebrating the Woodstock Music Festival, the $250,000 requested by Speaker Nancy Pelosi for something called an “Exploratorium” in her district in San Francisco, or the preposterous $1.7 million of taxpayer-funded earmark to the Centers for Disease Control to provide “liaisons” for Hollywood medical dramas.  

A similar effort to tie this bill to the defense spending bill for fiscal 2008 failed when rank-and-file Democratic members revolted against their leadership.  This effort must be defeated as well.  I have joined over 100 of my colleagues in co-sponsoring House Resolution 786, which would force Congress to consider the Veterans and Military Construction bill as a stand alone measure.    

The VA healthcare system is facing a real crisis that affects the lives of real people.  The Federal government has no greater responsibility than providing for the common defense, and then caring for those veterans who make enormous sacrifices on behalf of all of us.  Congress has a constitutional duty to pass appropriations bills and send them to the President.  The Democratic leadership in the House and Senate should stop playing games, stop playing politics, and stop standing in the way of the wishes of their own caucus.   There is no excuse to not pass the Fiscal Year 2008 Military Construction-Veterans Affairs spending bill before Veterans’ Day.