A political spat over veterans’ benefits has prompted a powerful committee chairman to put a hold on legislation that would have authorized $866 million worth of construction at several Veterans Affairs medical facilities in California.
Rep. Jeff Miller, the Chumuckla, Fla., Republican who chairs the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, postponed discussion of the bill last week after veterans advocacy groups began complaining to lawmakers that the bill would result in a reduction in cost-of-living benefits for veterans.
Federal government statistics show that 1.85 million veterans live in California. The majority of them – roughly 1.38 million – are wartime veterans.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars sent a memo to the entire House of Representatives last week asking lawmakers to vote against the legislation because the projects it authorizes rely on “veterans to pay for them with their disability compensation.”
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That same day Garry Augustine, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans group, claimed in a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, Wis., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, that the legislation would cost veterans dearly by rounding down the percentage increase in their benefits.
The hold on the legislation halts what had been the crown jewel in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ plan to end veteran homelessness in Los Angeles.
“If enacted, this round down would take more than $1.6 billion from the pockets of ill and injured veterans, many of whom rely solely on this benefit to support themselves and their families,” Augustine said in the May 23 letter.
In an interview, Augustine said the 10-year cost-of-living adjustment would be the largest reduction in veterans’ benefits that Congress has sought in recent history. Outpatient facilities should not be built “on the backs of veterans,” he said, calling for Congress to find other ways to come up with money to pay for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ construction projects.
“The hold is an unfortunate consequence of Republicans seeking to pay for construction projects by cutting veterans’ benefits,” said Rep. Mark Takano, the Democratic congressman from Riverside, Calif. “We all support these projects, which are vital to the health and well-being of our veterans, and we are eager for a funding alternative that does not take benefits away from veterans and their families.”
Takano is one of four Californians on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and the ranking member of the committee’s panel on economic opportunity. Two others, Democrats Jerry McNerney of Stockton and Raul Ruiz of Palm Desert, also took a dim view of cutting benefits to pay for the projects.
“While I’d like to see additional funding for facilities . . . we must consider how we are able to fulfill our existing obligations to veterans while also authorizing new construction projects that would expand care, at a time when the VA’s budget has already been reduced,” McNerney said.
“Our veterans must come first,” Ruiz said. “There is no place for partisan bickering when it comes to honoring our veterans and ensuring access to the support they have earned serving our country.”
The fourth Californian, Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Veterans’ advocates say they were made aware of the legislation when it was introduced on May 19. They began alerting lawmakers to their concerns a few days later, said Joe Davis, the VFW’s public affairs director.
We all support these projects, which are vital to the health and well-being of our veterans, and we are eager for a funding alternative that does not take benefits away from veterans and their families.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Riverside, California
Pelosi is calling on Miller to work with Democrats and Veterans Service Organizations on finding a bipartisan solution to the funding problem.
“Chairman Miller drafted this legislation without consulting with House Democrats,” she said in a May 31 statement. “It was problematic for a number of reasons, including cutting veterans’ cost-of-living-adjustment benefit increases. The bill also continued to raise obstacles to veterans with service-connected conditions seeking (In Vitro Fertilization) to help start families.”
The halt in consideration of the bill throws into limbo plans to build outpatient clinics in the California cities of Alameda, Oxnard and Santa Rosa, to increase earthquake protections to buildings in Long Beach, Los Angeles and San Francisco, to construct a research facility in Mission Bay, and to realign medical facilities in Livermore.
The bill would also have provided money for construction projects in Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington.
The West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Campus is the crown jewel in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ plan to end veteran homelessness in Los Angeles. A draft blueprint of the revamped campus shows that department officials want to build a town center, resource center, amphitheater, a metro line station and 1,200 permanent housing units for veterans over a 10-year period.
The department has been under pressure to improve services after CNN revealed in 2014 that at least 40 veterans died while waiting for treatment. In May of this year, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald came under fire after he compared wait times for appointments at veterans’ medical centers to waiting in long lines at Disneyland. He has also been under fire for the construction of a hospital in Denver, Colo., which was forecast to cost $604 million but ended up costing $1.73 billion.
“There were a lot of mistakes that happened in Denver, but we’ve put in place a whole new construction process as well as we’re working much more closely with the [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers,” McDonald told reporters during a May 23 roundtable breakfast. “The Corps of Engineers now is required by law to do any of our construction over $100 million.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has taken over the Denver project and several other major construction projects already, said Lauren Gaydos, the spokeswoman for the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, but that hasn’t lessened the concern of some members of Congress about out of control costs.
“The [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] has a horrible track record of managing each of these projects,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, Calif. “Every time they go into a cost overrun, it affects other veterans’ projects all across the country.”
Denham is a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the chairman of its Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials subcommittee. He said similar problems are unlikely to arise during the construction on the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Campus.
Miller offered no estimate on when the dispute would be resolved, allowing the bill to move forward. Efforts to curb veterans homelessness in Los Angeles are at risk, he said.
“Because of opposition from veterans’ service organizations regarding the spending offsets required to advance the campus plan, however, its future remains uncertain,” he said. “I look forward to hearing from these groups regarding their ideas for how to move forward with this important project without violating budget rules or adjusting other VA benefits and services.”
Maggie Ybarra, 202-383-6048 @MolotovFlicker