STATEMENTS ON INTRODUCED BILLS AND JOINT RESOLUTIONS -- (Senate - May 03, 2007)
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By Mr. CRAIG:
S. 1289. A bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to modify the salary and terms of judges of the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, to modify authorities for the recall of retired judges of such court, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
Mr. CRAIG. Mr. President, I have sought recognition today to comment on a bill I am introducing to help ensure the long-term ability of the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to promptly dispense justice in all veterans cases.
In 1988, Congress created this court to hear appeals from decisions of the Department of Veterans Affairs, most commonly on veterans' claims for disability compensation based on injuries or diseases they suffered during service. As was discussed at a hearing I called last year while serving as chairman of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, the CAVC is facing some serious challenges, which may impede its ability to consistently provide timely decisions to our Nation's veterans.
In fact, between 2004 and 2006 the court experienced something akin to a ``perfect storm.'' The last four of the original judges, who were appointed when the court was created, all retired, taking 60 years of experience with them; the court's incoming caseload experienced a dramatic 67-percent increase; and the court was left with a single judge who had at least 2 years of experience deciding these often complex cases. As a consequence, the court received 30 percent more cases than it decided during that time and the number of pending cases doubled in less than 2 years. With over 6,000 cases still pending, almost 4,000 more than a decade ago, and with the court continuing to receive record levels of incoming cases, veterans seeking justice from the court may feel the effects of this ``perfect storm'' for many years to come, as the court struggles to eliminate the existing backlog and to keep up with new appeals.
For the men and women who have served, sacrificed, and suffered for our Nation, I believe we must take steps to ensure that they will receive timely decisions on their appeals, not just today but for many years to come. That is why I am introducing this bill to help the court deal with its existing caseload and to help ensure that, in the long term, the court will not face such a devastating combination of events.
As one means of helping with the current caseload, the bill would modify the rules that govern the recall of retired judges. Under current law, a retiring judge may opt to be recall eligible, which means the judge may be involuntarily called back to work for up to 90 days per year when needed and may voluntarily serve up to 180 days per year. For this court, like other Federal courts, the option of receiving help from retired judges can be an extremely important resource. In fact, last year, after the court began recalling retired judges to help with its caseload, the court's productivity rose over 19 percent in 3 months.
In view of the obvious value of having experienced retired judges continue to decide veterans' cases and the fact that they currently receive the same salary as active judges regardless of how much, if any, service they provide in a year, it would be a win-win situation for veterans, the court, and taxpayers if a retired judge opted to return to the bench more frequently or for longer periods than current law permits. To allow for that possibility, the bill would eliminate the 180-day cap and permit a retired judge to voluntarily serve in recall status as many days during a year as he or she wishes.
Also, because the court may need an unprecedented level of service from retired judges in the next several years to help deal with its caseload, the bill would provide an incentive for the current complement of recall-eligible judges to provide as much service as practical during that time. Specifically, the bill would provide that, once a recall-eligible judge has served an aggregate of 5 years of recall service, the judge will no longer be subject to involuntarily recall and will continue to receive the same salary, that of an active judge.
To put that into perspective, if a retired judge were to be recalled for 90 days each year, as current law permits, it would take 20 years to provide the equivalent of 5 years of recall service. In addition to allowing judges to accelerate their service into fewer years, at a time when it may be most beneficial to veterans, this change may also encourage retired judges to serve in recall status for longer periods of time. This should help minimize concerns expressed by the Chief Judge in recent years about how much retired judges would be able to accomplish in the limited 90 day recall period. With these changes, the court should have the judicial resources it needs to handle its caseload in the near term.
In addition, this bill would take steps to ensure that the court, in the long run, is not faced with a difficult transition like the one it experienced in recent years. By way of background, the original judges, except for one who died, all retired between 2000 and 2005, with four of those retirements occurring within a single 12-month period. Given the delays inherent in the appointment and confirmation process, this left the CAVC without a full complement of active judges for much of that 5-year period. As the Chief Judge testified in 2006, functioning with less than seven judges ``led to a backlog'' of cases at the court.
Perhaps more significantly, this cluster of retirements meant that, as of August 2005, the court had only one judge, the new Chief Judge, who had at least 2 years of experience on the bench. In the words of that Chief Judge, ``no other Federal court would be faced with the transition that we were faced with as of August 2005. Where else in the Federal judiciary system could I, the junior judge . . . suddenly become the senior judge, and have all of the experience of the court departing?'' The Chief Judge also opined that ``[t]his turnover on the Court has had great significance, particularly in the short term, on the Court's case management.''
The effects of this turnover may have been magnified by the fact that this court deals with a very specialized area of law, which by all accounts has become increasingly complex in recent years. In fact, the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States recently described veterans' law as ``a complex thicket of court decisions and statutory requirements.''
To further complicate the situation, the court experienced a dramatic rise in the number of incoming cases in recent years. In fact, in 2005 the court received 37 percent more cases than it had received in any prior year and, then, in 2006 the court received an even higher level of incoming cases. As I indicated earlier, the combined effect of these factors led the court to be ``in the red'' for several years, taking in almost 3,000 more cases than it decided.
Although some factors that have contributed to the court's challenges cannot be controlled, it seems clear that multiple retirements of experienced judges within a relatively short period of time can have a profound impact on the court's ability to decide veterans' cases. It is worth noting that Congress previously attempted to stagger the retirement dates of the judges by temporarily expanding the size of the court and by shortening the length of two judges' terms. Despite those efforts, it is possible that 6 of the 7 judges now on the bench will retire within a 4-year window, an even shorter period than the disruptive turnover between 2000 and 2005.
That is why I believe we need to try a completely new approach to help ensure that experienced judges will stay on the bench for as long as practicable and will not retire in clusters
as their terms expire. To that end, this bill would eliminate the term limits for any new judges appointed to the court and would provide those judges with full pay-of-the-office only when serving as an active judge or when providing service as a recalled retired judge. The combined effect of those provisions should encourage judges to stay on the bench longer before they retire and to regularly volunteer for recall service after they retire.
Yes, this represents a significant departure from the traditional model for article I courts. But as experience has shown, the current model is not adequate to consistently provide veterans with timely decisions on their claims and we simply cannot allow further disruptions in service to our Nation's heroes each time the court turns over. Once judges gain years of valuable experience in this complex, specialized area of law, we should not force them, and their experience, into retirement. Rather, we should take steps, as this bill would do, to permit veterans and the court to receive the maximum possible benefit from their years on the bench.
To avoid ``changing the rules'' on those judges who have already been appointed and confirmed, these changes would be prospective, applying only to judges appointed to the court on or after the date of enactment of this bill. In the meantime, I hope the changes to the current recall provisions that I mentioned earlier will help avoid a difficult transition when the current sitting judges retire.
In addition to these changes to the term limits and recall rules, the bill would require the Chief Judge, in conjunction with the court's stakeholders, to set guidelines for when recall would be appropriate, taking into account such factors as the number of active judges, temporary or prolonged increases or decreases in caseload, and the complexity of the caseload. It would also require the court to submit annual performance reports to Congress including information on the court's workload during the prior year, as well as an analysis of whether the standards for recalling judges were met and what service, if any, was performed by retired judges. Such guidelines should aid the court, retired judges, and Congress in planning for periods when recall will likely be used and when it will not.
More importantly, the number of recall-eligible judges and their level of activity are important factors that must be considered in determining whether the court has sufficient judicial resources. If current caseload trends continue and the court, even fully utilizing the services of recalled judges, is unable to provide veterans with the level of service they deserve, the addition of judgeships may need to be considered. These guidelines and reports will allow Congress to closely monitor that situation to ensure that the court has the necessary capacity.
Finally, the bill would recognize the critical and increasingly demanding role of the Chief Judge by allowing the salary of the Chief Judge to be increased by $7,000 per year, and the bill would direct the General Services Administration to provide Congress with a report as to the feasibility and desirability of converting the court's current location into a dedicated Veterans Courthouse and Justice Center.
It is my sincere hope that the fundamental changes in this bill will help ensure that the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims is able to consistently provide veterans with timely decisions, now and for many years to come. I ask my colleagues to support this legislation.
I also ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in the Record.
There being no objection, the text of the bill was ordered to be printed in the RECORD
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By Mr. CRAIG:
S. 1290. A bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to provide additional discretion to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in contracting with State approving agencies, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
Mr. CRAIG. Mr. President, I have sought recognition today to comment on a bill I am introducing to ensure that veterans and their families have access to educational assistance benefits unimpeded by layers of bureaucracy and inflexible legal requirements.
Each year, the Department of Veterans Affairs provides educational assistance benefits to veterans, servicemembers, reservists, and their families to pursue a wide array of educational opportunities, including traditional college degrees, vocational training, apprenticeships, and on-the-job training programs. VA contracts with entities called ``State approving agencies,'' SAAs, to assess whether schools and training programs are of sufficient quality for individuals to receive VA education benefits while pursuing their programs. That SAA approval process was originally instituted after World War II to help stem abuses of veterans' education benefits, such as scam vocational and business schools profiting from those education benefits and then not providing veterans with an education of any value.
Today, unlike 60 years ago, schools and educational programs of all types may be scrutinized by a number of different entities, including the Department of Education, the Department of Labor, various national and regional accrediting bodies, and state licensing agencies. In fact, in 1995 the Government Accountability Office found that a substantial portion of the approval activities performed by SAAs overlapped with work done by others. Several years later, the Commission on Servicemembers and Veterans Transition Assistance concluded that veterans should be ``the primary judge of the appropriateness of accredited courses to their plans for the future'' and that ``[a]pproval of institutions accredited by accrediting bodies recognized by the Department of Education should suffice for veterans' training approval.''
In the years since those findings, Congress has altered the responsibilities of SAAs by requiring them to perform additional functions, such as promoting the development of apprenticeships and on-the-job training programs, conducting outreach services, and approving licensing tests. However, the traditional approval functions performed by SAAs, which are specifically required by statute, have not been significantly modified.
Last year, in order to assess whether veterans face unnecessary or inefficient barriers in accessing VA education benefits under the current system, I asked GAO to evaluate the extent to which SAA approval activities currently overlap with functions performed by the Departments of Labor and Education and what value is added by the services performed by SAAs. Let me give you a few examples of GAO's recent findings:
Many education and training programs approved by SAAs have also been approved by the Departments of Education or Labor and VA and SAAs have taken few steps to coordinate approval activities with those Departments.
To streamline approval processes, VA should collaborate with other agencies but, according to VA, that may be difficult because of the specific approval requirements in law.
VA does not require SAAs to track the amount of resources they spend on specific duties and functions, including those that may be performed by other agencies, and thus does not have all relevant information to make resource allocation decisions or to determine whether it is spending federal funds efficiently and effectively.
It is difficult to assess the effectiveness and progress of SAAs because VA does not have outcome-oriented performance measures in place to fully evaluate their performance.
Although I have no doubts about the dedication and sincerity of SAA personnel in the field, I believe GAO's findings demonstrate that we do not have a systematic or objective way to determine whether the current mix of services provided by SAAs, which are mandated by statute, are either necessary or beneficial to the veterans and their families who participate in VA's education programs. That is why I believe we should overhaul the entire statutory scheme regarding SAAs, as this bill would do, to help eliminate redundant administrative procedures, increase VA's flexibility in determining the nature and extent of services that should be performed by SAAs, and improve accountability for any activities they undertake.
Specifically, this bill would strike statutory provisions that mandate what activities SAAs must perform, how those functions must be carried out, and how VA must pay for them. Instead, VA would have authority to contract with SAAs for services that it deems valuable and to determine how those services should be performed, evaluated, and compensated. The bill would also require VA to coordinate approval activities performed by State approving agencies, the Department of Labor, the Department of Education, and other entities to reduce overlapping and unnecessary layers of bureaucracy. To ensure that VA, Congress, and other stakeholders will be able to objectively assess the effectiveness of any functions performed by SAAs, VA would be required to establish outcome-oriented performance measures and SAAs would be required to track and report information on the resources expended on all activities they perform.
Finally, the bill includes a provision, similar to legislation that the Senate passed last year, that would provide a $19 million spending authorization for SAAs effective at the start of the upcoming fiscal year and would allow, for the first time, SAA funding to be drawn from both mandatory spending accounts and discretionary accounts. By way of background, since 1988 VA payment for the services of SAAs has been made only out of funds available for ``readjustment benefits'', a VA account funded through mandatory appropriations, and has been subject to annual funding caps.
For the current fiscal year, SAA funding from this entitlement account is capped at $19 million, but under current law there will be a $6 million reduction in authorized spending, to $13 million, for every fiscal year thereafter. Although the provisions of this bill would maintain a $19 million funding level in future years, it is important to note that that level is a ceiling, not a floor. As with any private-sector business or good-government business model, budgeting and funding decisions should be linked to performance and VA should contract only for those services that are necessary and valuable.
In sum, this bill would provide VA with the flexibility to streamline approval processes, eliminate redundant bureaucratic procedures, focus resources on services that will meet the current needs of education program participants, and ensure that veterans and their families will not confront layers of bureaucracy and inflexible legal requirements in accessing their educational assistance benefits. I ask my colleagues to support this measure.
I also ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in the Record.
There being no objection, the text of the bill was ordered to be printed in the RECORD
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By Mr. CRAIG:
S. 1293. A bill to amend titles 10 and 38, United States Code, to improve educational assistance for members and former members of the Armed Forces, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
Mr. CRAIG. Mr. President, I have sought recognition today to comment on a bill I am introducing to enhance educational assistance benefits provided to active duty servicemembers, veterans, members of the Guard and Reserve, and their survivors and dependents by the Department of Veterans Affairs, VA, and the Department of Defense.
In recent years, many veterans' organizations, members of Congress, and others have highlighted the need to modernize these education programs to support emerging and alternative education opportunities and to recognize that the role of Guard and Reserve members has been transformed since September 11, 2001. This bill would take significant steps in that direction by providing greater flexibility in the use of these education benefits, revising eligibility criteria to reflect current mobilization strategies for Guard and Reserve units, and enhancing the education program for our ``citizen soldiers'' who have been called up to serve in the war on terror.
First, this bill would provide veterans, Guard and Reserve members, and their spouses and dependents with additional flexibility in using existing education benefits. Traditionally, educational assistance benefits have been paid in equal monthly allotments throughout a semester or term. For veterans, the maximum basic rate is now $1,075 per month, which means a veteran may receive at least $9,675 over the course of an average school year and almost $39,000 during a 4-year college program.
This system works well for veterans attending a traditional four-year college. But, as the Commission on Servicemembers and Veterans Transition Assistance reported in 1999, the existing payment structure ``constrains veterans and servicemembers desiring to enroll in short-term career-focused technical courses,'' a problem that is ``especially acute if the cost of the course dramatically exceeds the benefits payable for the few months' duration of the course.''
That is why in 2001 I cosponsored legislation to establish an ``accelerated'' payment option for veterans' education benefits. With that program now in place, a veteran may receive an up-front, lump-sum payment of up to 60 percent of the cost of certain high-tech, high-cost programs. Since that option was made available, many veterans have used that additional flexibility to train for jobs in high technology sectors of the economy, such as the computer and telecommunications industry, the aerospace industry, and the electronics industry.
Then last year, as chairman of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, I supported legislation that would have expanded this option to allow accelerated payments for short-term, high-cost education programs leading to jobs in any high growth sectors of the economy. Although VA also supported that legislation, VA testified that ``implementation would be challenging'' and that ``[i]t would be cleaner and more direct if the bill simply stated that all high-cost short-term courses were eligible for accelerated payments.''
Having taken those concerns into account, this bill would allow veterans to receive accelerated payments for any short-term, high-cost education programs, and it would authorize VA to spend up to $3 million for those payments in each fiscal year from 2009 to 2012. Not only would this provide veterans with the flexibility to pursue nontraditional or technical educational opportunities, but it may help veterans quickly obtain job skills that currently are in high demand.
For example, the trucking industry is now experiencing a critical shortage of trained drivers, but the GI Bill, as currently structured, may pay only a fraction of the cost for a veteran to take the 6 to 8 week training course, about $2,000 of a total $6,000 bill. With the availability of accelerated payments for those and other short-term, high-cost training programs, veterans may be able to obtain the skills needed to thrive in sectors of the economy that, today, are growing rapidly and can provide them with lucrative, rewarding career opportunities.
In addition, the bill would, for the first time, provide Guard and Reserve members with the option of receiving accelerated payment of their education benefits. They, too, would be eligible to receive up-front, lump-sum payments of up to 60 percent of the cost of any short-term, high-cost education program. For fiscal years 2009 to 2012, the bill would authorize $2 million per year for the Montgomery GI bill, Selected Reserve program and $1 million per year for the smaller Reserve Educational Assistance Program to make these payments.
To ensure that the families of veterans also have flexibility in the use of their education benefits, the bill would extend the same accelerated payment option to participants in the Survivors' and Dependents' Educational Assistance program. It would authorize VA to spend up to $1 million per year for those payments in fiscal years 2009 to 2012.
The second principal goal of the bill is to update and enhance the education program for members of the Guard and Reserve who are called to active duty. In 2004, recognizing the increased sacrifices being made by our ``citizen soldiers'' who are fighting in the War on Terror, Congress created the Reserve Educational Assistance Program for Guard and Reserve members who are activated for at least 90 days after September 11, 2001. This program was a significant step in the right direction, providing a maximum benefit of $860 per month for 36 months, a total possible benefit of over $30,000.
However, the maximum monthly benefit requires a deployment of 2 continuous years or more of active duty, and the Secretary of Defense has recently announced that ``from this point forward, members of the Reserves will be involuntarily mobilized for a maximum of one year at any one time, in contrast to the current practice of sixteen to twenty-four months.'' To bring those eligibility criteria in line with current practice, this bill would allow members of the Guard or Reserve to receive the maximum benefits if they are deployed for an aggregate period of 3 or more years.
Finally, the bill would provide these ``citizen soldiers'' with access to a valuable option now available only under the Montgomery GI bill program for active duty servicemembers. Specifically, it would allow members of the Guard or Reserve to contribute up to $600 in order to receive an additional $150 per month in education benefits, which amounts to an additional $5,400 in benefits over the course of 36 months. Under this bill, Guard and Reserve members would, for the first time, have access to this valuable opportunity.
With these modifications, we can take significant strides towards ensuring that current education programs are up-to-date and flexible and that they provide members of the Guard and Reserve with benefits commensurate with the level of service they are now performing on behalf of the entire Nation. I urge my colleagues to support this legislation.
I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in the Record.
There being no objection, the text of the bill was ordered to be printed in the Record
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