by Tom Zampieri
In late summer, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer (R-IN-4) made a special request of Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) to present oral and written testimony concerning legislative priorities for the upcoming fiscal year. BVA had been accustomed to providing such testimony on general issues of concern only in the latter part of the winter.
Tom Zampieri in testimony before House Veterans Affairs Committee on September 20.
At right, Non Commissioned Officers Association President and CEO Gene Overstreet.
Accordingly, BVA submitted a nine-page document for the Congressional Record that outlined our major priorities. We emphasized in a 10-minute oral statement, presented on September 20, our frustration with the inability of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) to provide a full continuum of blind rehabilitation outpatient programs. We also elaborated on and provided evidence for the failure of the Department of Defense (DOD) and VHA to provide a “seamless transition” for service personnel who have suffered eye injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. We further reported on our discouragement with the limited attention given to cases of Traumatic Brain Injury.
On September 28, we again presented our views, this time to the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health. Our written testimony was submitted for the record.
The Subcommittee session was held to discuss emerging trends in veterans health. Our testimony reiterated many of the points we made eight days earlier and included recommendations to pass H.R. 3579 (described below), increase funding for VISOR (Visual Impairment Services Outpatient Rehabilitation) and VICTORS (Visual Impairment Center to Optimize Remaining Sight), support the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, and authorize $4 million for Post-Trauma Vision Syndrome research with the VA/DOD Traumatic Brain Injury Optometric Rehabilitation Program.
VA COLA 2007 Update
Military retired pay and veterans disability compensation will increase by 3.3 percent on December 1, marking an annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) that is both less than expected and smaller than last year’s 4.1 percent increase.
The 3.3 percent increase will first appear in January checks.
Annual increases in military and federal civilian retired pay, military survivor benefits, and veterans pensions are automatic, linked by law to the increase in Social Security benefits. All the benefits are tied to a comparison of consumer prices from the last three months of each fiscal year, which ends on September 30, to the same period of the previous fiscal year.
Veterans disability benefits and veterans dependency and indemnity compensation for survivors do not automatically increase, but Congress passed and President Bush signed into law a bill guaranteeing the same increase received by military and federal civilian retirees.
Lame Duck 109th
At press time, we are attempting to analyze what might occur during the lame duck session of the 109th Congress. Unfortunately, political crystal balls are not usually very accurate.
During the month of October, the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee majority staffs tried to negotiate final construction of a major veterans bill for the session. Despite the effort, more than six major pieces of legislation on benefits, health care, information technology reforms, and many other issues remained unresolved.
The minority committee staff is frustrated by the lack of passage of many of these pieces of legislation and even more upset over the apparent lack of cooperation between both sides in completing a package that would help improve services for veterans.
The nature of the political climate leaves us wondering if a major bill will even be brought up for a vote before the session is complete and lawmakers leave town for good. Staff members have expressed to us their doubts that it can be accomplished. They say that there are 11 major federal appropriations bills still needing to be passed to operate federal agencies, including the MILCOM/VA FY 2007 appropriations, within the next five weeks. Many of them are not optimistic that anything else will get done.
The appropriations bill indeed passed the Senate on November 14, just as the lame duck session got underway. The bill was to move to the Conference Committee, where it had a chance to pass by the end of November, but not before another Continuing Resolution would have to keep the federal government operating.
BROS Bill and Paired Organ
Our most pressing interest is the Blinded Veterans Continuum of Care Act of 2005, H.R. 3579, better known at BVA as the BROS (Blind Outpatient Rehabilitation Specialist) bill. The good news has always been that there is no major objection to this bill. At least this is the information we have been given all along.
Nevertheless, the House of Representatives never voted on the bill throughout an entire year. This means that, at best, the legislation could be inserted into a comprehensive and perhaps massive veterans bill at the end of the session. If either side refuses to compromise on other key bill provisions where there is considerable disagreement, the BROS bill may not pass. We would obviously be very disappointed and frustrated by such a result.
As we reported in the post-convention issue of the Bulletin, the loss of the Paired Organ Bill, H.R. 2963, is almost a foregone conclusion at this point. Even with 80 bipartisan co-sponsors, Chairman Buyer managed to block it throughout the session.
The potential death of two of our major bills during the lame duck session would support the claim and add to the evidence offered by many Americans that the 109th Congress was most certainly a “Do-Nothing Congress.” The total number of days worked since last January was 94, and on three of those days they spent fewer than 25 minutes on the House floor.
Another term used to describe this session is “Dracula Congress.” This reference comes after 19 major bills were passed after midnight, an almost unprecedented number. Most speculate that this was done to avoid and stifle debate, and so that the public would pay less attention to the action. Anyone who wants to try to defend this session should just review the numerous public opinion polling results during the last five months. These polls showed that the approval rating of this Congress was at less than 22 percent, one of the worst in recent history!
BVA will base the planning of its legislative agenda on what occurs in the lame duck Congress. We will need to react quickly heading into the new 110th session beginning in January 2007. We will set goals and write testimony with the hope that the House Committee will once again recommend a return to the traditional joint hearings with the Senate Committee.
If nothing else, we hope that what will emerge in the next Congress will be a new bipartisan House Veterans Affairs Committee that will look seriously at issues such as mandatory funding of veterans health care. We would like to see our national legislators recommitted and dedicated to solving many of the long-standing problems facing America’s veterans, both young and old.
Our list of members wishing to receive periodic Legislative Alerts by email remains relatively small at this time. It may be taking longer than expected to get the word out, but we hope to add many more names and email addresses in the upcoming months. I very much look forward to working with my fellow blinded veterans in an effort to improve veterans health care.
Where feasible and appropriate, regional groups are once again encouraged to appoint a “Legislative Advocacy Alert Liaison” to help coordinate advocacy efforts and to inform group members of the availability of the Alerts.
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