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Public Statements

Veterans Benefits Improvement Act of 2004

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC


VETERANS BENEFITS IMPROVEMENT ACT OF 2004 -- (House of Representatives - November 17, 2004)

Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I move to suspend the rules and pass the Senate bill (S. 2486) to amend title 38, United States Code, to improve and extend housing, education, and other benefits under the laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and for other purposes.

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

Mr. Speaker, I rise in strong support of S. 2486, the Veterans Benefits Improvement Act of 2004. This solid compromise package incorporates 14 benefit bills that have been referred to the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, this Congress and contains more than 40 substantive provisions. S. 2468 would enhance a wide range of veterans' benefits, including protections for mobilized servicemembers.

I want to draw my colleagues' attention to Title I of this comprehensive bill, which is derived from H.R. 1716, the Veterans Earn and Learn Act. This is a bill that I introduced last year along with the ranking member, the gentleman from Illinois (Mr. Evans), and others.

The Veterans Earn and Learn Act represents the fifth in a series of employment and business opportunities bills that our Subcommittee on Benefits has offered over the last 3 and a half years. The Veterans Earn and Learn Act would significantly update the Montgomery GI Bill on-job training and apprenticeship programs to reflect learning opportunities in American business and industry today. This legislation is Congress's first major rewrite of the on-job training, or OJT, and apprentice policies for veterans since World War II.

Additionally, effective October 1, 2005, Title I includes a 10 percent increase in the monthly educational assistance allowance the VA furnishes to veterans and others pursuing this particular type of training.

The Veterans Earn and Learn Act is timely because almost 200,000 servicemembers and Reservists separate each year, and they would now all be eligible to use these Earn and Learn initiatives to continue to build transferrable skills.

VA's OJT and apprenticeship program is a valuable program for employers as well. Tapping into veterans as a rich resource of skilled and qualified employees is a shrewd business strategy for employers of all sizes. Veterans bring a unique combination of skill, discipline, character and talent to the workplace.

Title II of the compromise focuses on protecting the civilian job benefits of activated Reservists. In light of longer active duty tours, the major provision here would increase from 18 to 24 months the maximum period of employer-sponsored health care coverage that a Reservist-employee may elect to continue to receive.

Title III, Mr. Speaker, focuses on veterans' benefits matters. The key provision of this title is a $250 monthly increase in dependency and indemnity payments for a surviving spouse with children under the age of 18. This increase would be payable for 2 years following the service-connected death of a servicemember or veteran.

Title IV enhances housing benefits for veterans. Among its important provisions is an increase of the maximum VA home loan to 25 percent of the Freddie Mac conforming loan amount for a single family residence. The increase raises from $240,000 to $333,700 the maximum VA home loan guaranty.

I am also pleased that this title makes some needed changes to provide flexibility in VA's administration of Transitional Housing program for homeless veterans. The very first loan under this program should close this month, I would point out to my colleagues, and I am looking forward to several more projects getting under way in the next 6 months.

Title V focuses on protecting some of our most vulnerable veterans and dependents when it is necessary to pay the VA benefits on their behalf to a third party.

This bill also makes improvements to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. I am pleased it includes provisions that I had authored, including one to furnish additional protections to servicemembers and their spouses with respect to residential and motor vehicle leases when the servicemember is mobilized or sent to a new duty assignment, sometimes with little advance notice.

Finally, I am especially pleased that one of the sections of Title VIII would allow the principal office of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to be located at any location in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, if that location would allow greater cost efficiencies or a permanent building for the court.

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Mr. Speaker, I rise today in strong support of S. 2486, the Veterans Benefits Improvement Act of 2004.

I appreciate the opportunity to work with ARLEN SPECTER and BOB GRAHAM, the distinguished chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, in writing this comprehensive legislation. I thank them both for their leadership.

The Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2004 incorporates 14 benefits bills that have been referred to the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs this Congress. S. 2486 contains more than 40 substantive provisions which would enhance programs affecting veterans' education, training, employment, reemployment, compensation and pension, housing, fiduciary, protections for mobilized servicemembers, and other benefits.

Mr. Speaker, I want to draw my colleagues' attention to title one of this comprehensive bill, the Veterans Earn and Learn Act, which is derived from H.R. 1716, introduced by Ranking Member LANE EVANS and me and many others.

This section represents the fifth of six measures in a Veterans' Jobs and Business Opportunities package that our Subcommittee on Benefits has authored over the last 3 ½ years. I appreciate the vision and bipartisan leadership of JACK QUINN and BOB FILNER, followed by J.D. HAYWORTH and BOB FILNER, then MIKE SIMPSON and SILVESTRE REYES, and now HENRY BROWN and MICHAEL MICHAUD on this package.

Title one of the bill would significantly update the on-job training and apprenticeship programs administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs to reflect learning opportunities in American business and industry today. Indeed, this legislation is Congress' first major rewrite of on-job training, OJT, and apprenticeship policies for veterans since World War II.

Plus, effective October 1 of 2005, the bill would increase by 10 percent the monthly educational assistance allowance that the Department of Veterans Affairs furnishes eligible veterans, dependent widows and children, and Reservists.

The Veterans Earn and Learn title of the bill is timely because 419 military occupational specialties are currently transferable to the civilian economy. Almost 200,000 separating servicemembers per year, including Reservists, would be eligible to use these Earn and Learn initiatives to continue to build transferable skills. This measure represents a unique opportunity for veterans, Reservists, and dependent widows and children to use their VA educational assistance benefits to augment the entry-level wage the employer pays them as they train on the job. As the training wage increases over time, the monthly VA educational assistance allowance decreases.

VA's OJT and apprenticeship program is a valuable program for employers, too. For example, in a 3-year apprenticeship, VA education benefits under this measure would augment the veteran's training wage furnished by the employer by $17,891. In fact, Missouri has documented that VA's on-job training and apprenticeship programs improve employee retention and bring significant federal training dollars to Missouri communities to the tune of $38 million annually. Tapping into veterans as a rich source of skilled and qualified employees is a shrewd business strategy for employers of all sizes, as veterans bring a unique combination of skill, discipline, character, and talent to the workplace.

The monthly OJT/apprenticeship rates vary based on eligibility. But here are some brief examples of the amount of VA educational program allowances beneficiaries would receive in 1- and 2-year on-job training programs and 3- and 4-year apprenticeships under the Montgomery GI Bill:

A Reservist participating in a 1-year on-job training program as a management trainee in a retail establishment would receive $2,471 over 12 monthly payments.

A widow or dependent child who participates in a 2-year training program as a financial adviser with an investment firm would receive $9,643 over 24 monthly payments.

A veteran who participates in a 3-year apprenticeship program in plumbing would receive $17,891 over 36 monthly payments.

A veteran who participates in a 4-year apprenticeship program as an electrician would receive $22,529 over 48 monthly payments.

Mr. Speaker, it's important to note that on-job training and apprenticeships are excellent, practical ways for veterans to use their VA education benefits, especially for those who are married with families to support. VA education benefits are not limited to classroom training.

Let me now highlight other titles in this comprehensive bill.

Title two focuses on employment matters. A major aspect of this title is a provision to increase from 18 to 24 months the maximum period of employer-sponsored health coverage that an employee covered by the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 may elect to continue to receive. This extension of coverage is essential given the longer active-duty tours of our reservists. I commend Representatives HENRY BROWN and MICHAEL MICHAUD for their leadership on this issue.

Title three focuses on veterans' benefits matters. A key part of this title is the provision that provides a $250 monthly increase in dependency and indemnity payments for a surviving spouse with children under age 18. These payments are authorized during the 2-year period following the service-connected death of the servicemember or veteran. I commend Chairman SPECTER and Ranking Member GRAHAM for their leadership on this provision.

Title four enhances housing matters. Among other important provisions, this section of the bill increases the maximum VA home loan to 25 percent of the Freddie Mac conforming loan amount for a single-family residence. It also annually indexes the maximum amount of VA's home loan guaranty for construction or purchase of a home to that Freddie Mac limit. In effect, the increase raises from 240,000 to $333,700 the maximum home loan purchase amount on a VA-guaranteed purchase.

I am also very pleased this section makes some small needed changes the Department of Veterans Affairs has asked for to provide greater flexibility in its administration of the Transitional Housing program. I was pleased to work with VA in this regard so as to make the Transitional Housing program as effective as possible.

Title five focuses on fiduciary matters to protect our more vulnerable veterans and dependents when they require a third party payee to receive VA benefits on their behalf. These provisions are the result of 2 hearings held by the Subcommittee on Benefits, and I commend Representatives HENRY BROWN and SUSAN DAVIS for their work on this section of the bill.

Title six addresses various memorial affairs issues, including designating a monument constructed at the Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, CA, as a Prisoner of War/Missing in Action National Memorial.

Title seven makes various improvements to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. I am very pleased this section of the bill includes the provision I authored to furnish additional protections to servicemembers and their spouses with respect to residential and motor vehicle leases. This provision modifies section 305 of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to address the reality of servicemembers having to terminate leases due to longer-term mobilization or deployment. This provision clarifies that if a servicemember terminates a lease entered into jointly with a dependent-usually the spouse-the obligations of both the servicemember and the dependent are terminated. This affords military families the additional protections they need when the servicemember is mobilized to a new duty assignment-sometimes with little advance notice-and the family, too, must relocate.

Lastly, title eight addresses other important matters. I am pleased this section authorizes that the principal office of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to be located at any location in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. Another location may furnish greater cost efficiencies for the court.

In closing, I thank Chairman BROWN and Ranking Member MICHAUD for their leadership and continued bipartisan cooperation. I'd also like to thank the staff on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate Committees on Veterans' Affairs for their diligent work in bringing this bill to the floor.

Mr. Speaker, I urge my colleagues to support S. 2486.

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HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES,
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS,

Washington, DC, November 16, 2004.

Hon. F. JAMES SENSENBRENNER, Jr.,
Chairman, Committee on the Judiciary, Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC.

DEAR MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you for your letter of November 16, 2004, regarding the jurisdictional interest of the Committee on the Judiciary in section 504(b) of S. 2486, the Veterans Benefits Improvement Act of 2004.

Your willingness to forego a sequential referral to expedite House consideration of S. 2486 is most appreciated. The Committee on Veterans' Affairs understands that your letter does not waive jurisdiction of the Committee on the Judiciary over the bill and is not a precedent for other bills.

Again, thank you for your cooperation in this matter. Be assured I will include our exchange of letters in the Congressional Record.

Sincerely,

Christopher H. Smith,
Chairman.

Mr. Speaker, I reserve the balance of my time.

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I yield such time as he may consume to the gentleman from South Carolina (Mr. Brown), who has been a great workhorse on this committee. As I indicated earlier, this bill alone has some 40 disparate provisions. It encompasses over 14 bills. The gentleman, as the subcommittee chairman, has walked point on all of this; and I want to thank the distinguished chairman for his very able and very effective leadership as subcommittee chairman.

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I yield such time as he may consume to the gentlewoman from Florida (Ms. Ginny Brown-Waite), a distinguished member of our committee.

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, we reserve the balance of our time.

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I yield 2 minutes to the gentleman from Maine (Mr. Michaud), my good friend and colleague, to allocate as he would like.

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I reserve the balance of my time.

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I continue to reserve the balance of my time.

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume to say once again that this is a good bill. As a matter of fact, it is a very, very important bill. And I do want to thank my friend, the gentleman from Illinois (Mr. Evans), and the gentleman from South Carolina (Mr. Brown), our distinguished subcommittee chairman, who has done yeoman's work on this, and also the gentleman from Maine (Mr. Michaud), who is the ranking member on that subcommittee. This has been a true bipartisan product. I think when President Bush signs this piece of legislation we can all be very, very proud.

I also want to join my friend from Texas in thanking the gentleman from Texas (Mr. Rodriguez) for his outstanding and exemplary work in the Congress for the past 8 years, and he certainly has put veterans first. So again I want to thank him for his work as well.

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Mr. REYES. Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of S. 2486, the Veteran's Benefits Improvement Act of 2004. I would like to thank my colleagues for bringing it to the floor for a vote.

As you may know, S. 2486 would expand educational and housing benefits to qualified veterans and their dependents. With the rise in cost for educational services and home loans, our Nation's veterans are required to supplement the high costs through loans that can become financially burdensome. With the expansion of these two benefits, we can better ensure they are given the opportunity of continuing their education and purchasing their own home.

In addition, I am glad to see the inclusion of important language to provide housing and automobile benefits to veterans disabled by VA medical treatment or vocational rehabilitation. As you may know, I am a sponsor of H.R. 843 which aims to address this same issue by providing full service-connected disability to persons injured while under the care of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Although this bill does not provide full service-connected disability to injured persons, I am certainly glad to see this piece of legislation included in the bill.

I believe this bill will provide them with the resources needed to fulfil their dreams and long term goals for education and home ownership. In addition, this legislation will solidify the care for our veterans welfare and health while under the care of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Mr. Speaker, I strongly urge my colleagues to support the passage of this important bill.

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Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I yield back the balance of my time.

Mr. MICHAUD. Mr. Speaker, I yield back the balance of my time.

The SPEAKER pro tempore. The question is on the motion offered by the gentleman from New Jersey (Mr. Smith) that the House suspend the rules and pass the Senate bill, S. 2486.

The question was taken; and (two-thirds having voted in favor thereof) the rules were suspended and the Senate bill was passed.

A motion to reconsider was laid on the table.

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