By Steve Vogel
Despite a proposed budget that would boost spending for veterans, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee accused the White House on Wednesday of leaving veterans "twisting in the wind" by refusing to declare the Department of Veterans Affairs exempt from automatic cuts to reduce the deficit.
At a committee hearing on the budget, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said the White House's silence on the issue is meant to pressure Congress to accept a deficit-reduction agreement that would avoid the cuts otherwise required under the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Miller said the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office have given the committee legal opinions that under current law, VA should be ruled exempt. But the White House's Office of Management and Budget has not yet given a legal opinion.
"I believe we're seeing here a cynical attempt to keep veterans twisting in the wind," Miller said.
Democrats on the committee pointed to VA's proposed $140.3 billion budget released Monday, a 10.5 percent overall increase that includes 4.5 percent more in discretionary spending and a 16.2 percent jump in mandatory spending.
"The proof is in the pudding," said Rep. Bob Filner (Calif.), the committee's ranking Democrat. "There is no twisting in the wind here."
Miller acknowledged that the increases are "certainly positive" given the tight fiscal climate. But he added that "veterans don't care about numbers, they want their claims decided faster, their health care taken care of and their aging facilities upgraded."
In testimony before the panel, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said the budget request "continues the momentum" for the department's three top priorities: improving veterans' access to care and benefits, eliminating the huge disability claims backlog and ending veterans homelessness by 2015.
Filner was skeptical about VA's progress on cutting the number of pending disability claims, which stood at more than 800,000 in January. He said the department needed to take "radical" action, such as approving all pending Agent Orange claims. "Let's give the Vietnam vets some peace," he said. "Let's get them off the books."
Otherwise, Filner told Shinseki, "it's going to take longer than you and I are alive."
Republicans on the committee pressed for more information about the Veterans Job Corps recently proposed by President Obama, a $1 billion program the administration says will provide jobs for 20,000 veterans over the next five years on projects to preserve and restore national parks and other federal, state and local lands.
"My concern is there's no detail in the budget submission," Miller said. "Where did the $1 billion figure come from?"
Shinseki said details about the proposal were still being put together but added that money for the program would not come from existing VA programs.