By Joshua M. Patton
While air-time and print-space was devoted to the Senate’s vote on July 25, 2012 to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire for those making above $250,000 per year – arguably more of a political statement than a real attempt at legislation – a much more significant bill passed the Senate unanimously and with little fanfare. The Sequester Transparency Act requires the White House to outline which domestic and defense programs will be affected by the looming sequester that was part of the debt-ceiling compromise last year.
A “sequester” is typically used in property disputes, but was adopted by the Congress in 1985 as a measure to corral government spending. If the spending bills total more than what was agreed upon in the budget resolution, funds are automatically sequestered by the Treasury and not distributed to those agencies. A percentage of the budget for all agencies is supposed to be withheld; however certain agencies are often exempted.
One of those agencies was the Veterans Administration, however there are always loopholes. The VA is exempt, except for “administrative costs.” In an historic hearing held the same day, where both the House Armed Services and House Veterans Affairs committees meant jointly for the first time, Secretary Eric Shinseki said he doesn’t “have a definition for administration costs right now.” Much of the focus on fixing the problems in the VA is arguably in the realm of administration. In 2010, the VA overhauled their claims service and processed a million claims, however they received 1.2 million new ones, and in 2011 they received 1.3 million new requests. By not exempting the VA’s administrative costs, this shows that despite reforms there is still a fundamental disconnect between the policymakers and the moneychangers.
This happens in many areas where the government wants to help the veterans, but while the intentions are strong, the purse-strings are even stronger. For example, to battle veteran unemployment which for a long time was well above the national average, the Department of Defense instituted transition services for newly-separated veterans to better equip them to be competitive in the current job market.
Secretary Panetta, at the same hearing, said that with the pending drawdown in Afghanistan, “This system is going to be overwhelmed — it’s already overwhelmed.” Veteran unemployment is a problem the Obama Administration threw their full power behind, and these DoD services were one of the solutions. A success for both the campaign and the country, veteran unemployment is now lower than the national average. What Secretary Panetta’s statements suggest is that even with the full support of the White House to get this right, the DoD still grossly underestimated what they needed.
With this sort of history, the idea that the VA could lose “administrative costs,” in January 2013 when the sequester kicks in is both very real and very troubling for veterans. The VA has made some great improvements in the past few years, and asking them to continue to improve while cutting their budget is unrealistic and dangerous for the many veterans who depend on the service of the VA – from disability claims to education benefits – to help them rebuild their lives away from war.
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