All Americans owe a debt of gratitude to our country's bravest individuals - those who have served and given their lives in defense of freedom and liberty. The well-being and long-term health of America's servicemen and women is very important, and I have worked hard in Congress to help provide the best care possible for our veterans and current uniformed service members. With increases in funding over the past few years, we are moving forward and making great progress in providing for our current military servicemen and women and for our veterans.
Supporting our Military and Their Families.
The brave soldiers who are serving our country in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have made tremendous personal sacrifices in order to make the world a safer place. I am grateful to our soldiers for their service, and I am working to provide them with the equipment they need to achieve their missions safely and effectively and return to their families as soon as possible. In addition, Congress must also ensure that the families of these courageous individuals are thanked and cared for while their loved ones are away.
I recently showed my support for the troops by voting in favor of the final version of H.R. 5658, the Fiscal Year 2009 (FY2009) Department of Defense (DOD) Authorization bill, which passed the House on May 22, 2008. This legislation sets policies and authorizes spending for the DOD in the amount of $602 billion, also including an additional $70 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill contains the following provisions:
* Military Pay Raise: Authorizes a 3.9% pay increase to our military in FY2009, a 0.5% increase over the President's request.
* Force Regeneration: Adjusts military personnel levels, increasing end strength by 7,000 Soldiers and 5,000 Marines, along with the equipment necessary for these additional units in order to support current and future operations. This section also includes a provision that would allow certain service members to take sabbaticals from active service for up to three years and return with no loss of rank or time-in-service.
* TRICARE Fee Hikes Rejected: Prohibits DOD from increasing premiums and fees associated with TRICARE, the U.S. military's active duty and retiree health care program.
* No Permanent Bases in Iraq: Prohibits funds from being used to construct permanent bases in Iraq or to exercise control over oil resources in Iraq.
* New Equipment: Authorizes $3.2 billion for the Army's Future Combat Systems (FCS), $200 million below the President's request, to delay procurement and allow for more substantial testing of some key FCS components. Also authorizes the $3 billion requested for the purchase of F-22 fighters, plus an extra $523 million for long term F-22 parts procurement.
* Iraq Cost-Sharing Provisions: Alters the way development aid is distributed through the Commander's Emergency Response Program, implementing cost-sharing requirements that the Government of Iraq match 50% of every dollar provided by the U.S.
FY2008 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations.
In addition to regular costs associated with the DOD, the Bush Administration also requests the additional emergency funding required to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. For FY2008, the President requested an additional $189.3 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the form of an emergency supplemental.
While passage of emergency supplemental appropriations last year did provide much needed funding for our troops in Iraq, I was disappointed that House Leadership provided less than half of the funding requested. As a result, Congress was forced to consider additional supplemental funding legislation totaling $183.5 billion for FY2008. H.R. 2642, which passed the House with my support on June 19, 2008, provides $165.4 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This legislation fully funds the President's request or Iraq and Afghanistan without any policy riders that would hamstring our commanders on the ground or implement artificial surrender dates. Given the success of the Surge in providing the security necessary for political progress in Iraq, I think House Leadership's decision to provide our commanders with only a few months of war funding at a time was irresponsible. However, I am glad the House finally chose stop playing politics with our troops. It is very important that our military receives the funding necessary to continue building on the security gains already realized by the Surge.
Despite the continuing debate about using funding as a means to influence the handling of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I will continue working to provide our troops with the tools, equipment, and supplies they need to complete their mission and return home as soon as possible.
Providing Benefits for Our Nation's Veterans.
I am happy to report that Congress made significant progress on veterans' issues over the past year. I supported the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2008 because it increased funding for veterans and related military programs by 30% over FY2007. Provisions of this legislation were included in the FY2008 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, providing $87.5 billion for Veterans Affairs funding, $37.2 billion in Veterans Health Administration funding, and important policy reforms including:
* An additional $2 billion over the President's request to cover an increase in the beneficiary travel reimbursement mileage rate to 28.5 cents per mile, substance abuse services, expanded outpatient services for the blind, and additional Vet Centers.
* Language urging both DOD and VA to improve the continuity of care for veterans through joint clinics, joint Centers of Excellence for PTSD and TBI, joint research and treatment, and the development of joint clinical practice guidelines for polytrauma injury, TBI, burns, and amputee care.
* Provisions directing the Administration to include TBI as a select program within the medical services account to allow Congressional oversight to more accurately account for special needs of these patients.
* Increased funding for Mental Health and Substance Abuse in order to increase access to substance abuse services and ensure that adequate inpatient psychiatric care is maintained. Also directs the VA to reexamine the policy for a reduction in psychiatric inpatient care based on the needs of returning OIF and OEF veterans, and prohibits the VA from reducing the number of beds at any facility that currently has a waiting list.
* Reporting requirements on the VA concerning the challenges and costs faced by veterans in remote rural areas when obtaining medical services from the VA, and the need to improve access to locally administered care for veterans who reside in remote rural areas.
* Requirements that the DOD and VA to provide a joint report to the Committees on Appropriations detailing the actions being taken to achieve an interoperable electronic medical record (EMR) system and to identify all plans within both DOD and VA to increase interoperability.
I believe that the funding for veterans' benefits and veterans' health care is one of the most important responsibilities of the federal government, and I am pleased the House was able to come together in support of our nation's veterans with this funding and these important policy reforms. Though I could not vote for the overall Omnibus Appropriations bill, I supported the passage of these provisions in the original version of the bill. For my part, I will continue to work to provide greater care for those who have served our nation and made great sacrifices for all of us.