Recently, the House of Representatives forcefully responded to the mortgage and foreclosure crisis that has plagued the economy and more importantly, personally affected too many Americans, by approving a comprehensive measure by a vote of 272 to 152.
The mortgage crisis impacts all of us. Families have lost their homes, millions more are on the brink of foreclosure and homeowners have seen their property values plummet. This bill will help homeowners keep their homes and get our economy back on track.
The House also took the necessary step in offering protections to our brave men and women in uniform by prohibiting the foreclosure of property, owned by a service member, for nine months following a period of military service. Currently, service members and veterans are protected from foreclosure for ninety days after deployment. The approved extension, to nine months, will provide the time to catch up on payments, make alternative arrangements with a lender, or in the worst case scenario, sell their home.
The bill expands homeownership opportunities for veterans by increasing the loan amount guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs until 2009. The current VA home loan program is irrelevant because the loan amount often does not cover today's home prices and as a result, veterans are forced to turn to the commercial mortgage market, which is risky and volatile. This approved loan increase will allow more veterans to purchase their homes with a funding guarantee from the VA.
The bill also increases funding for a VA grant program that assists disabled veterans needing to adapt their homes to accommodate their disabilities. Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are finding that the current VA program does not cover the cost of adapting their homes. This bill provides an increase for these programs so that more funds are available to help care for these brave veterans. By adapting their homes, veterans are able to stay in their homes.
I thank my House colleagues, Financial Services Committee Chairman Frank and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rangel, for incorporating provisions from two of my bills, H.R. 4883 and H.R. 4884, into this legislation, which addresses the needs of veterans during the ongoing subprime mortgage market crisis. I applaud the leadership of Speaker Pelosi as well as her commitment to addressing the needs of our Nation's heroes.
For many of our returning service members and veterans, the stress of deployment is still prevalent when they return home. The action taken by the House will provide these heroes with not only the necessary time to readjust, but will also ensure they have the opportunity to do this in the comfort and security of their own home.
All too often, our veterans come home from fighting a war to face another war of keeping their homes. Veterans injured on the battlefield deserve to come home and focus on healing - not on fighting to keep their families in their homes. The number of homeless veterans today is atrocious and a national disgrace. There is much more that needs to be done to support our veterans as they transition from the battlefield back into their communities.
Recognizing the Contribution of Latino Americans Serving in the Armed Forces
Last month, I co-sponsored H.Con.Res. 253, recognizing the service, courage and patriotism of Americans of Hispanic descent who have served or are serving in the United States Armed Forces.
Latino-Americans have stepped up to serve our nation in record numbers, and unfortunately, their contributions have been largely unrecognized in American history. I am pleased to join other Congressional members in supporting the service of Latinos and recognizing their immense dedication and heroism.
Men and women of Hispanic descent have served in every major military conflict in the history of the United States, and they have been awarded 42 Congressional Medals of Honor for distinguished service, receiving more of these awards than any other ethnic group. There are approximately 1,300,000 living Hispanic veterans in the US, and there are over 210,000 servicemembers of Hispanic descent serving in the United States military (as of August 2006). More than 400 Hispanics have died in Afghanistan and Iraq as of June 2007.
During World War II, Latinos faced segregation in many public institutions, but they continued to serve their country loyally and then returned from the battlefield to dismantle the racial barriers of their time. Over 400,000 Hispanic servicemembers served in the Armed Forces during World War II.
Announcing the Expansion of Vet Centers in Chula Vista
I recently announced that by the fall of 2009, readjustment counseling will be offered to combat veterans at a new Chula Vista Vet Center, one of 39 additional Vet Centers to be opened across the country.
The 232 Community-Based Vet Centers in all 50 states are bursting at their seams due to the needs of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. I am pleased that we will be bringing additional services closer to veterans who may have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other counseling needs.
Vet Centers are a key component of the mental health program at the VA and are available at no cost to veterans who served in combat during any war era. They were established in 1979 by Congress, when a need was recognized by PTSD Counselors at the VA. The idea came from collaboration between Southern California veterans' leader, Shad Meshad, and San Diego's own, Chaplain Bill Mahedy, who are both veterans themselves and were employed by the VA at that time.
Bill and Shad met many Vietnam Veterans who were having readjustment problems, many years after combat, and they understood that it would be very difficult for these veterans to trust the VA with their personal records. Vet Centers became a safe haven, managed by the VA, but set apart to ensure that they are able to provide quality, confidential and non-bureaucratic care. Vet Centers offer counseling on employment, family issues, education and military related sexual traumaas well as bereavement counseling for the families of service members who were killed on active duty.
I have been actively involved in bringing Community Based Outpatient Clinics to Chula Vista and to El Centro. The addition of a new Vet Center in Chula Vista will provide much needed health services to local veterans.
The Centers have hired 100 combat veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as outreach specialists to brief service members currently leaving the military about VA benefits and services. I join many veterans in looking forward to the opening day of the new Center in Chula Vista!
Exposing the Truth about Chantix and the VA Smoking Cessation Study
As Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, I recently conducted an oversight hearing in response to recent events concerning a smoking cessation study at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The hearing focused on the risks to veterans enrolled in the study and the failure to properly alert study participants of the latest relevant safety information about pharmaceutical drugs used in ongoing research. The issue was brought to national attention in a series of news articles printed by the Washington Times.
I am troubled that my Committee continues to learn about serious issues from the media. This lack of transparency from the VA, coupled with what seems to be an institutional lack of accountability, simply does not do justice to the service of our veterans. It is time for the VA to take full responsibility for caring for our veterans.
The current smoking cessation study at the VA compares different courses of treatments for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Chantix, also known as varenicline, received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on May 11, 2006, and is one of the drugs being prescribed to participants in the VA study. On November 20, 2007, the FDA issued an early communication about an ongoing safety review of Chantix and reported "suicidal thoughts and aggressive and erratic behavior in patients who have taken Chantix." The FDA then issued a Public Health Advisory stating that symptoms of Chantix may include "anxiety, nervousness, tension, depressed mood, unusual behaviors and thinking about or attempted suicide" on February 1, 2008. Not until February 29, 2008, did the VA send a letter and new consent form to study participants to notify them of the dangers associated with Chantix. The letter did not mention the added risk of suicidal thoughts.
I am very concerned about the process VA has in place for protecting veterans participating in research studies. In no way do I want to diminish the value or necessity of research conducted at the VA. It is, however, the responsibility of my Committee to ensure that the safety of veterans is never overshadowed by the research mission at the VA. Congress has mandated that medical research at the VA be monitored and reviewed, but this process has not been executed properly in this case. Secretary Peake is not being well served by the government workers who oversee these research programs. These VA employees are entrusted with the care of our veterans, and our veterans deserve better.
VA Department Secretary James Peake estimated of the 32,000 veterans that have been prescribed Chantix, 6,000 have been diagnosed with PTSD. Of the 945 veterans enrolled in the smoking cessation study, 241 veterans have been prescribed Chantix over the course of the study. As of June 18, 2008, a total of 158 veterans were taking Chantix.
During the hearing, I urged the VA to personally reach out to the veterans in the study. There were only 945 veterans in this study. Why didn't the VA just call them immediately?! As a father, if I read that Pfizer advisory and my child was on Chantix, I would immediately tell him or her to stop taking the drug. I lack the so-called expertise on the efficacy of drugs, but we are all expert in being parents and family members, and we should be expert in being guardians of the veterans under our care.
Every quote I have read in the newspapers from the VA on this subject says that this study is going to continue. It is as if the train has left the station, and nobody wants to stop it at all. In this controlled study, questions have been raised, and I will continue oversight until they have been answered. I believe Chantix, or any drug that could cause a recurrence of a past psychotic episode, should not be given to the veterans in this controlled study. I plan to work with Secretary Peake to ensure that the VA operates in accordance with Hippocrates and does no harm'.
The opening statements of all the witnesses and a link to the webcast are available on the Committee website at http://veterans.house.gov/hearings/hearing.aspx?NewsID=270.
The House of Representatives Passes my American Flag Resolution
Last month, the House of Representatives passed my resolution that all American flags flown over federal government buildings and on federal property should be made in the United States.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that $10 million worth of American flags were imported from other countries over the past two years, with a vast majority from China. Policies vary as to whether the American flags purchased by federal, state and local governments have to be made in America.
I thank the Speaker for allowing this resolution to come to the floor and my colleagues for supporting it. The American flag is much more than our national symbol. It embodies courage, liberty, and justice. Many brave men and women have fought and died for the freedoms that the flag represents. That is why we must ensure that they are proudly made in the United States!
Applauding the Increase in the Federal Minimum Wage
On July 24, the federal minimum wage rose from $5.85 to $6.55 an hour. This is the result of legislation enacted by the new Democratic-led Congress in May 2007 - raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour over a two-year period.
I am proud to represent the State of California where the minimum wage is currently set at $8.00 an hour, and I am pleased that Congress has acted to raise the minimum wage for the rest of the nation. We must work hard to ensure that all Americans are able to provide for themselves and their families, and providing a living wage is absolutely necessary. This increase in the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour over two years will benefit 12.4 million workers across the country - both directly and indirectly!
For ten long years, under a Republican-controlled Congress, the minimum wage was frozen at $5.15 an hour. This was the longest period in the history of the minimum wage law that minimum wage workers failed to get an increase. As a result, minimum wage workers fell further and further behind.
Consumer costs - from gas prices to food to health care costs - have all skyrocketed at the same time that American families have seen their real income drop by almost $1,000 since 2001. This pay raise for 12.4 million workers nationwide is long overdue. It is wrong for millions of Americans to be working full-time and year-round and still living in poverty. We must raise American wages to living-wage levels, and this is an important step.
The minimum wage legislation enacted by Congress in 2007 increases the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour, in three steps, over two years. Under the legislation, the minimum wage was increased from $5.15 to $5.85 on July 24, 2007; will increase to $6.55 on July 24, 2008; and will increase to $7.25 on July 24, 2009. The increase to $7.25 an hour will mean an additional $4,400 per year for a minimum wage worker's family - helping them to keep up with rising costs.
Raising the minimum wage is a key step in working to strengthen the economy for all Americans, not just for the privileged few. The increase in the minimum wage this month will make a real difference in the lives of millions of America's working families.
Restoring Earned Benefits to All Vietnam Veterans - Including "Blue Water" Vets!
I recently introduced H.R. 6562, the Agent Orange Equity Act of 2008. The bill restores equity to all Vietnam veterans that were exposed to Agent Orange.
We owe it to our veterans to fulfill the promises made to them as a result of their service. If, as a result of service, a veteran was exposed to Agent Orange and that exposure has resulted in failing health, our nation has a moral obligation to care for each veteran the way we promised we would. And as a country at war, we must prove that we will be there for all of our veterans, no matter when they serve. The courts have turned their backs on our veterans, but I believe this Congress will restore their hard earned benefits.
The Agent Orange Equity Act of 2008 would clarify the laws related to VA benefits provided to Vietnam War veterans suffering from the ravages of Agent Orange exposure. In order to try to gain a better military vantage point, Agent Orange, which we now know is a highly toxic cocktail of herbicide agents, was widely sprayed for defoliation and crop destruction purposes all over the Vietnam War Battlefield, as well as nearby nations. It was also stored on U.S. vessels and used for vegetation clearing purposes around U.S. bases, landing zones and lines of communication.
Currently, VA requires Vietnam veterans to prove "foot on land" in order to qualify for the presumptions of service-connection for herbicide-exposure related illnesses afforded under current law. This issue has been the subject of much litigation and on May 8, 2008, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals upheld VA's overly narrow interpretation. Congress clearly did not intend to exclude these veterans from compensation based on arbitrary geographic line drawing by the VA.
The Agent Orange Equity Act of 2008 would ensure that every service member awarded the Vietnam Service medal, or who otherwise deployed to land, sea or air, in the Republic of Vietnam is fully covered by the comprehensive Agent Orange laws Congress passed in 1991. If enacted, this bill will make it easier for VA to process Vietnam War veterans' claims for service-connected conditions that scientists have conclusively linked to toxic exposures during the Vietnam War and that are identified in current law.
Time is running out for these veterans. Many are dying from their Agent Orange related diseases, uncompensated for their sacrifice. There is still a chance for America to meet its obligations to these noble veterans. I will work with my Congressional colleagues to provide proper disability benefits and health care to the thousands of Navy "blue water" veterans and survivors that earned this care in battle.
Criticizing the VA Limitations of Voter Registration
On Wednesday, July 23rd, Committee on House Administration Chairman Robert A. Brady and I sent a letter to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary James B. Peake strongly criticizing a Department of Veterans Affairs directive that prohibits voter registration activities at VA facilities. Directive 2008-025 restricts voter registration activities by outside organizations and individuals, based upon claims that these activities disrupt normal facility operations.
The right to vote is the foundation for our democracy, and this right has been courageously protected by our veterans. A recent bureaucratic ruling by the VA will not only prohibit voter registration drives on the grounds of VA facilities, but may hinder injured and aging veterans from receiving voter registration services altogether.
The letter calls for the Department of Veterans Affairs to "recognize that promoting civic engagement should not be viewed as a disruption in their operations' but rather an instrumental component of providing medical and social support services to our veterans."
"By prohibiting non-partisan voter registration drives, the Department is overlooking one of the most effective tools in promoting veterans' right to vote," the letter states. "Across the country, millions of voters who historically have not participated in elections have been energized to participate this year by new and innovative registration programs, many of which are conducted by non-partisan organizations. Veterans deserve the same registration opportunities as Americans who are not under the care of the Department of Veterans Affairs."
Chairman Brady and I join a host of other organizations and officials who have criticized the VA's directive. Most recently, a bi-partisan group of Secretaries of State from more than 20 states issued a letter calling for the VA to reconsider the directive. Under the provisions of the directive, duly elected Secretaries of State and election officials have been curtailed from distributing voter registration materials and instructing veterans on the use of newly-implemented voting machines.
Our Nation's veterans have fought to ensure that all Americans have the right to vote, and we should be making it easier - not harder - for them to exercise their right to vote.
Participating in the Reach Out and Read Program
Last month, I was honored to participate in the Reach Out and Read program by reading to the children at the Clínicas de Salud del Pueblo in Calexico. As part of Reach Out and Read, doctors at Clínicas send their young patients home with free books and advise parents to read with their child everyday.
Participating in the Reach Out and Read Program
Pictured here with me is Miss Ashley Gamiz Torres who, at 8 months old, is already very interested in reading!
Constituent Mail Bag
The price of fuel at the pump is battering my family budget and is dragging down our entire national economy. Given the fragile condition of our economy, there is no time for delay. Congress needs to put politics aside and take action on energy legislation before leaving Washington for the August recess.
There is no single, magic bullet that will solve this crisis. The
situation can only be solved through thoughtful and comprehensive reforms to our nation's energy policy. Congress must enact bipartisan legislation that limits excessive speculation and encourages environmentally sound domestic production.
It is only through this broad comprehensive approach that Congress can effectively address the causes of today's record energy prices. But please don't delay. Families like mine and businesses everywhere are hurting. I strongly urge you to come to an agreement on an energy policy that accomplishes all of these objectives, and to act before the August recess.
Congressman Filner replies:
Thank you for contacting me with your concerns about high energy prices.
I wholeheartedly agree with you that we must do more to address the skyrocketing prices of gasoline and other sources of energy. Global oil speculation and other questionable market activities are distorting the normal supply and demand market. We must also continue to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by increasing our nation's investment in alternative energy and energy efficient technology. Rest assured, I will continue to work with my colleagues to address this national crisis.
I appreciate your advocacy and share your concern on this important issue.
Useful Website: Assisting with the Transition to Digital Television
By law, television stations nationwide must switch from the old method of transmitting TV signals known as analog to digital television (DTV) on February 17, 2009. For televisions that are currently not set up to receive digital signals, the government has teamed with the National Association of Broadcasters and private technology companies to provide customers with digital conversion boxes at a discounted rate, beginning this month. For more information on how to prepare for the conversion to digital television, I invite you to visit DTVanswers.com and find out what options are available to assist you with this transfer.