Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) today was named chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made the announcement while listing committee assignments for the next session of Congress.
As the White House and lawmakers are in the final stages of negotiating a year-end debt reduction deal, Sanders said his first order of business is to stop a proposal that would slash benefits for disabled veterans. "It is morally and economically unacceptable that anyone in Congress would propose balancing our budget by making significant cuts for disabled veterans," Sanders said.
A proposed switch to a so-called chained CPI, a new way to measure consumer prices and calculate cost-of-living adjustments, would drastically reduce benefits for veterans and their families. The largest cuts would impact young, permanently disabled veterans who were seriously wounded in combat. Under the chained CPI, a disabled veteran who started receiving benefits at age 30 would have their benefits reduced by $1,425 at age 45, $2,341 at age 55 and $3,231 at age 65.
Sanders has served on the Veterans' Affairs Committee for six years. He replaces Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who was appointed the new chair of the Senate Budget Committee. "I have enormous respect for Sen. Murray and for all of her hard work on behalf of veterans," Sanders said.
"It is a great honor to be named chairman of the committee, but it is an even greater responsibility," Sanders added. "We owe it to the over 22 million brave veterans living in the United States today to provide the benefits that they have earned and deserve."
The very first bill Sanders introduced when he came to Congress in 1991 called for reimbursing members of the National Guard and Reserve for income lost while deployed during the Persian Gulf War. Since then he has been tireless in his fight for veterans, eventually helping secure $23 million to expand research to find treatments for the 175,000 veterans still suffering from health problems related to that war.
Earlier this year, Sanders won a Congressional Leadership Award from the Disabled American Veterans. He has helped pass legislation to provide over $57 million to help severely disabled veterans adapt their homes to better accommodate their disabilities and supported legislation to assist the caregivers of severely wounded warriors.
A co-sponsor of the new GI Bill of Rights, Sanders has been a leader in helping veterans transition from duty in warzones to life at home. Working with the Vermont National Guard, Sanders helped secure major funding to build and develop a cutting-edge outreach and reintegration program in Vermont to provide proactive assistance to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and their families. The senator also has advocated for veterans suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and other often undiagnosed health issues, helping to secure funding for a new building and budget for the VA's flagship research center, the National Center for PTSD in White River Junction, Vt.
Another key initiative by Sanders for veterans has been opening and expanding VA Community-Based Outreach Clinics. There are now five clinics in Vermont which operate as satellites of VA medical center in White River Junction, Vt., helping veterans cut down on their travel time to receive care. In addition, Sanders coordinated funding and support for a Women's Comprehensive Care Center in Vermont to provide medical services specifically for women veterans. He also successfully fought to raise travel reimbursement rates for veterans who commute long distances to receive medical care, mitigating travel expenses as an obstacle to treatment.
To fight veteran homelessness, Sanders supported opening several housing facilities for homeless veterans in his home state and secured funding for transitional housing for Vermont's women veterans.
Since Sanders' arrival in the Senate, VA funding has repeatedly met the level requested in what is known as the "Independent Budget," an annual report from a respected group of veterans' service organizations.
In addition to the Veterans' Affairs Committee, Sanders sits on four other standing committees: Budget; Environment and Public Works; Energy and Natural Resources; and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.