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Requiring Reports on Management of Arlington National Cemetery

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

Mr. BUYER. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

I rise in reluctant support of Senate bill 3860, as amended, which would require reports on the management of Arlington National Cemetery. The reason I say reluctant support is the Veterans' Affairs Committee itself, really
we didn't take up the issues on Arlington, and we allowed the Senate and the House Armed Services Committee to do their work, but the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, we did not do ours. And so this is very unfortunate that we're proceeding with this bill in a lame duck session when we have not even held hearings ourselves on this issue. So I cannot speak from firsthand, other than my conversations with the Secretary of the Army myself, but the committee did not hold hearings on this piece of legislation at all.

Since the founding of Arlington in June of 1864, the cemetery has been revered as the ``crown jewel'' of the national cemetery system. It is the final resting place of several American Presidents, Supreme Court justices, and over 300,000 veterans and their families. Like most Americans, I was deeply disturbed and appalled by revelations by the Department of Army Inspector General's report regarding the mismanagement and possible criminal behavior at Arlington.

I do want to praise Secretary of the Army John McHugh for his swift action in response to this report, also for his following up on the recommendations of Secretary Geren's request for the investigation. So, once again, I extend my compliments to my good friend, the Secretary of the Army, John McHugh.

Secretary McHugh has installed a new management team that is reaching out to the National Cemetery Administration at the VA for their help in implementing the needed changes to defend Arlington's reputation and ensure that the cemetery operations are conducted in a way that honors our warriors who have given so much in the defense of our Nation.

No family should ever have to wonder if their loved one is accounted for or buried in a proper location. They should assume that all has been done correctly. Our heroes and their families deserve the highest possible standards with regard to burial honors, and this bill seeks to prove this assurance.

This bill, as amended, requires several reports on the new management team's progress to improve Arlington's IT systems, the contracting practices, organizational structure, and report on the feasibility of transferring the operation of Arlington from the Department of the Army to the VA's National Cemetery Administration. While additional reports will be beneficial, I believe it is important to first allow the Army to complete its ongoing investigations of these same issues. Different studies on overlapping issues can provide unique insights; however, providing these simultaneous investigations, performed by different agencies, might also create unnecessary hindrances to the ongoing studies.

Also, with regard to the final provisions on the feasibility of transferring the operation of Arlington National Cemetery to the VA National Cemetery Administration, I want to offer my recommendation that Arlington National Cemetery remain under the jurisdiction of the United States Army. It is hasty to assume that we should immediately just transfer the jurisdiction. It is very important for us to define what, in fact, are the challenges and what are the problems. It is so much like an American: We hear a problem, and we want to run out and create a solution before we totally understand the scope of our challenge. So before we get the cart before the horse, let's not run out there and talk about, Let's immediately transfer.

Now I can assure you that when the Department of Interior was not doing their job, what I believe, correctly, I made a suggestion that we should transfer those cemeteries from the Department of Interior to the VA. I don't have a problem. You can make that a holder out there. You get people to do what they believe are the right things to do, and maybe that is what Senator McCaskill was attempting to do here. So I have to respect her in setting a benchmark to do that, and maybe that is, in fact, what her goal here is, to make sure that everybody does what they are supposed to do.

The VA does an excellent job of administering the National Cemetery Administration. However, ANC imposes a comprehensive array of issues and logistical arrangements that are completely unique and separate from those at the VA that they, in fact, handle. For example, in addition to coordinating approximately 25 military funerals per day, the Army's duties at Arlington, including the responsibility for the horse teams, for the caissons, and guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns, is truly unique. Certainly Arlington National Cemetery can benefit by emulating VA practices that are applicable, and such information sharing is, in fact, underway. But ultimately, Arlington National Cemetery, under the jurisdiction of the United States Army is where it should remain until we can achieve some answers.

I reserve the balance of my time.

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Mr. BUYER. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

What I would like to comment on now, Mr. Speaker, really deals with a problem in the House rules that I think needs to be corrected as we go into the next session of Congress. So with regard to jurisdiction, lines of jurisdiction with regard to committees and how bills are assigned through the Parliamentarian, at the direction of the Speaker, I sent a letter to the Speaker dated December 9, 2010.

This Senate bill that came to us, it appears that it invokes the jurisdiction also of the House Armed Services Committee. The Army personnel manage and operate Arlington National Cemetery, and the cemetery is under the jurisdiction of the United States Army. So Chairman Skelton properly moved out and held his hearings in the House Armed Services Committee relative to Arlington. So I can begin to understand why the chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee then allowed the House Armed Services Committee to proceed.

Then when the Senate conducts their hearings, and they did so, the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee passed their bill, and immediately they sent it to us in a lame duck session.

Now, you say, why wouldn't this bill also have either a joint referral or to the Armed Services Committee, or why did it only go to the House Veterans' Affairs Committee?

Well, you go to the House rules. So even though I sent the letter to Madam Speaker Pelosi saying, please invoke jurisdiction of the House Armed Services Committee, the response obviously was ``no'' because here we now are on the House floor doing this bill by a committee who had never done hearings on the bill.

The problem is in the House rules itself. When you turn to the House rules, I think this has got to be an error in the drafting of these rules. Rule X, 2 cites that cemeteries under the United States in which veterans of any war or conflict are or may be buried, whether in the United States, abroad, except cemeteries administered by the Secretary of the VA, it goes to the Veterans' Affairs Committee. This has to be corrected. So, hopefully, when you go into the next Congress, this rule gets corrected so that the cemeteries that are under the jurisdiction of the United States Army, such as the two, Old Soldiers Home and Arlington National Cemetery, that that legislation regarding that jurisdiction rests with the Armed Services Committee. The VA Committee, we have oversight; but with regard to this, it's a jurisdictional question, and it needs to be corrected.

And that's why you have two individuals here managing a bill on the floor that really the House Armed Services Committee, Mr. Speaker, should also be here. But I want all the Members to know that's why this is happening.

I suppose, yes, we can all be very upset with regard to the management and the markings of some of these graves; but those of us who have had the opportunity to go to Arlington and see the job in which the Old Guard perform, it is pretty extraordinary. I was last there on Monday of Thanksgiving week. I joined Lieutenant General John Kelly, his family and hundreds of his friends at the chapel at Fort Myer. We all left the chapel. We proceeded down the windy road, down the hill, led by the Army Band, a platoon of soldiers, horse-drawn caisson that carried the body of John's youngest son, Lieutenant Robert Kelly, killed in Afghanistan.

The wind was crisp. The sky was blue. The oak and maple trees were clutching onto their red, yellow, gold and light-green leaves. Others were slowly drifting to the ground. The sun shined brightly upon them all.

Each grave marker properly and perfectly aligned in columns, in rows and angles, each was offset by rich green grass signifying the etchings in our national book of remembrance. That's my firsthand account of having attended the funeral of Lieutenant Robert Kelly at his burial on Thanksgiving week. That has been replicated since that Monday of Thanksgiving week, and it has been no different than how the Old Guard pays their honor and respect to so many, and it goes back so far in time.

That rich heritage is what causes each one of us to rise when we get so concerned with regard to mismanagement of such a sacred ground.

With that, I'm going to ask all Members to support the legislation.

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