Oct. 1 marked the one-year anniversary of the 16-day federal government shutdown, a shameful episode that created hardships for millions of Americans — especially our veterans.
During the shutdown, work stopped on more than 250,000 veterans’ disability claims awaiting appeals, burials at national cemeteries were scaled back, and vital medical and prosthetic research projects were threatened. Had this stalemate continued for just another week or two, compensation and pension checks for disabled and impoverished veterans might have been cut off altogether.
To make amends for this shameful failure, Congress can act now to protect veterans from being hurt in the future by passing the bipartisan Putting Veterans Funding First Act. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., as majority leader, can make that happen by scheduling a vote on this bill as soon as the Senate returns from recess after the elections.
Sponsored by Sens. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and John Boozman, R-Ark., and approved overwhelmingly by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, this urgently needed legislation authorizes advance appropriations for all Department of Veterans Affairs operations, which would ensure that all of the VA has its funding a year in advance of each new fiscal year.
This same process has been in place for VA medical operations, and it has proved a godsend. That’s why VA medical centers and clinics stayed open during the shutdown without interruption. But other VA functions — processing of benefits for disability compensation; pension and survivor benefits; medical information technology; medical and prosthetic research; facilities construction and maintenance; and cemetery administration — are also critical to the well-being of veterans and should not be put at risk by partisan budget battles that lead to gridlock.
The Putting Veterans Funding First Act will have another, equally important benefit — improving VA management.
Even in years when there was no shutdown, political bickering has meant that VA appropriations bills only passed on time in three of the last 26 years. Often, the VA has had to wait months — 116 days, on average, each of the past four years — before it knew how much money it had to spend for the remainder of the fiscal year. This has sabotaged the agency’s capacity to effectively plan and administer services for those who have risked their lives for our country, especially as more veterans returning home look to the VA for health care services and transition benefits.
That’s true yet again for fiscal year 2015, which began Oct. 1. The VA appropriations bill has not passed, and the VA, like most of the federal government, will be funded through Dec. 11 under a stop-gap measure known as a continuing resolution. So even under the best-case scenario, the VA won’t know its full annual budget until the fiscal year is 72 days old. And it’s entirely possible — maybe even likely — that the delay could last into 2015.
The Putting Veterans Funding First Act will change all this, because the agency will know how much money it has to work with before the start of each fiscal year. Budget sanity — and smart management — will be much more likely to return to the VA.
But whether that will occur depends largely on Sen. Reid. He can help bring the 113th Congress to a more positive, productive close by bringing the act to the Senate floor for a vote, where it will surely pass, and then by working with the House to ensure the legislation reaches President Barack Obama’s desk before the end of the year.
This simple action won’t undo the damage done to veterans during the government shutdown, but it will ensure that such damage isn’t repeated, even if partisan gridlock persists in Washington.
And it will be one way Sen. Reid and his colleagues can show that they are truly willing to match their words with deeds worthy of the men and women who served. Surely, that is the least they can do for the brave Americans who sacrificed and suffered to keep our nation free.
North Las Vegas resident William T. Anton is Nevada state commander for Disabled American Veterans.