Who Supports the Troops? - Part I
Veterans groups are preparing to present their budget requests to Congress on February 8, but for the first time ever, they'll be constraind by a three-minute time limit.
I recently spoke with Joe Violante, national legislative director of Disabled Americans Veterans, about the change.
Are any politicians actively trying to change the time limit?
Not on the Republican side. We've had limited contact with them. On the Democratic side Nancy Pelosi has been more accommodating. She was incensed when it came out, but she's in the minority and has no say.
How much time have you had to testify in the past and what will be the focus of your testimony?
Normally they provide us 10 minutes for oral remarks and usually that doesn't include the introduction. They're pretty lenient with the 10 minutes.
We'll give them a perspective on what's actually happening out there because we hear from our members about the problems they face on a day-to-day basis. It gives us an opportunity to present that information to members of Congress.
Why would there even be a limit during wartime? It seems like you should have all the time you need considering you work for a group that knows what's actually happening on the ground.
It just seems so different now. During past wars, Congress has been more liberal with veterans' benefits during times of war. Now we're seeing exact opposite. They're looking at ways to cut our programs and limit spending levels on veterans programs. It's an entirely different atmosphere.
Why is this happening? The Republicans can't say 'Support the Troops' enough and they're in charge. Why is this even an issue?
It's an effort to stem any criticism of the administration's budget proposal, as well as any criticism of what is happening. Disabled American Veterans doesn't have a position on the war. We look at building better lives for disabled veterans and their families. We try to make sure that their sacrifices and service are not forgotten when they come home. We've tried to emphasize that yes, it's important to support our troops, but it's also important when they come home to continue to support them.
What are you seeing from the troops coming home?
We're seeing a lot more head trauma and brain injuries that are difficult to deal with. They're getting excellent care from the military before they're separated. The VA now has also put an emphasis on giving them priority care and moving them to the front of the line. It's important to make sure these young men and women are being treated properly. Anyone who is enrolled at the VA and needs care should be getting it. I don't think the government wants that type of adverse publicity. The problem is, Korean and Vietnam vets are being turned away.
Bush is preparing to pass another tax cut. Why isn't the vets issue getting more attention?
That's what we keep asking ourselves. I think it's just a matter of priority. They [the Bush administration] feel strongly about providing tax cuts as opposed to providing benefits and services to veterans. That's what it boils down to. There's more of a need to put pork barrel projects in appropriations bills than it is to spending on veterans health care. The American public believes the sick and disabled are being cared for but it's not happening that way.
How are you going to stick to the three-minute rule?
Depending on how the budget looks, my three minutes may be spent on reemphasizing or pointing out problems with the president's budget. If it's a good budget, I'll talk about benefit improvements.
Which politicians consistently vote to improve healthcare and benefits for the troops?
Our strongest champion was the chairman of House Vets Affairs Committee last Congress. That was Chris Smith from New Jersey, but they took his chairmanship away from him. Congressmen Rick Renzi (R-AZ) and Rob Simmons (R-CT) were good, but they're not on the committee this Congress. Again, on the minority side there's Lane Evans (D-IL), Bob Filner (D-CA) and Chet Edwards (D-TX) who isn't on the committee, but on the house budget committee. He's been a very strong advocate. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has met with us more than any other leader -- at least 11 or 12 times. No leader has ever done that. She's done it and kept our issues before the Democratic Caucus.
What's on your agenda?
The one thing we've been pushing for is mandatory health care funding. Right now VA healthcare is funded through a discretionary process, which means the president makes his recommendation, then it goes through the House and Senate and appropriations before the final figure is released. We don't believe that process is working. The last two ears clearly show the government has missed the mark. VA healthcare is a bargain and if you look at state of VA healthcare today as opposed to 10-15 years ago, quality is excellent.
It costs the taxpayer less if vets are cared for by the VA than Medicare or Medicaid, but members of congress don't seem to get that.