DISCONTINUING BUSINESS AS USUAL -- (Senate - December 12, 2007)
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Mr. CRAIG. Mr. President, I thank the Senator from Georgia and the Senator from Texas for their leadership. With that leadership comes a very clear voice about the problems this current Congress is facing. They are problems that are historic in character. I was once in the majority. It was the minority who said: We can do better and, therefore, we should run the Congress. In the last election, the American people listened and they changed the Congress. While I was chairing the Veterans' Affairs Committee at that time, we lost the Congress--we, the Republicans--by a reality of dropping to 32 percent in the minds of Americans as to an effective and responsible Congress. The minority played on that. They became the majority. They took over the leadership. They made a great deal of promises. Here we are in the eleventh and a half hour headed toward the twelfth hour of this session of Congress. They have not accomplished it. They have dropped below 11 percent in favorable rating among the American people.
The American people do want to see us get along. At the same time, they want their Government to function in a timely and responsible way. That is exactly what this Congress has failed to do.
I come to the floor to speak about two issues specifically. The assistant majority leader came to the floor earlier today and asked unanimous consent that S. 1233 and S. 1315 be allowed to come to the floor under unanimous consent or to come to the floor with debate and final passage. The reason he had to do that was before the Thanksgiving recess, I came to the floor and objected to the movement of those bills. The Senator from Oklahoma also now objects to the movement of those bills. I think it is very important that not only does the record bear why we objected but the American people clearly understand why we are objecting, because these are veterans bills.
These are bills that deal with critical needs of America's veterans. I was once chairman and ranking member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, and I am not going to suggest that I need to add credentials to my record as supporting America's veterans. My responsibility is to make sure the services to our veterans get delivered in a responsible and timely way, that the truly needy service-connected and poor veteran gets served, and that the needs of those coming in out of Afghanistan and Iraq, who then become veterans out of our active service, are met in an immediate way. That is the responsibility of this Congress. It is not to keep adding and adding and adding new programs that may or may not be necessary and adding and adding and adding billions of dollars that anyone in service to veterans can say is at best questionable. It is for those reasons that I objected to those bills.
Now, let me break down why because there are some very real issues here.
S. 1233 is an important piece of legislation that a majority of those of us who supported the legislation to begin with agreed to. It is called the Veterans Traumatic Brain Injury and Health Programs Improvement Act of 2007. Any bill with that title would capture your imagination. One of the great concerns we have today is the traumatic brain injuries our men and women in service are coming out of Iraq with, especially because of the types of bombs that are being used over there. Oftentimes, this kind of injury does not show up in a veteran until he or she becomes a veteran.
If you look down through the priorities of that bill, you look at increased veterans' travel benefits--yes, rural veterans coming to veterans centers to be served; a major medical facilities project; adding to the expanded services of veterans health care; professional scholarship programs; extended time for preferred care; help for low-income veterans; traumatic brain injury program enhancement; assisted-living pilot program enhancement--all of those very valuable and very meaningful, strongly supported by the Veterans' Affairs Committee and strongly supported by this Senate.
But what happened at the last minute was that a Senator on the other side added a new program. They said: We are going to allow Priority 8 veterans to become eligible for the full service of health care under the veterans health care system. What is a Priority 8 veteran? A Priority 8 veteran is one who has no service-connected disability or injury or health care concern. Did they serve? Yes, they served. Did they sustain any injury or physical needs as a result of their service? No. Are they at the poverty level or below? No. They are above it. And in most instances--in fact, in a high percentage of them--through their own employment, they have health care.
So for a good number of years, because of costs, we who watch the veterans issues and Presidents and Secretaries of the VA have said we will not serve them. They will not be eligible for the full benefits. This President, President Bush, said: I will make them eligible, but they need to pay a small fee, a couple hundred bucks a year, to have access to the greatest health care program in the world. The minority at that time, the Democrats, said: No. They get it free of charge or they don't get it.
Well, all of a sudden into this very valuable bill they parachuted Priority 8 veterans. What does that do? Well, if you go talk to the Secretary of the Veterans' Administration, they are going to tell you that it might cause a substantial problem. Why? Because all of a sudden in this health care system there could be 1.3 million more Americans eligible for health care--not planned for, not anticipated, not budgeted for, but parachuted in, I have to believe all in the name of trying to show a concern for veterans and to demonstrate that maybe we are a little more sensitive than the other side.
What does that mean? Well, it also means the potential of between $1.2 billion more expended in 2008 and up to $8.8 billion more by 2012. Did they fund it? No. Have they stuck it in the bill? Yes. Are they trying to create a priority? Yes. Are they trying to create a new expenditure? Yes. And I said: No. Let's serve our poor and our needy and our disabled first and our traumatically brain injured and our post-traumatic stress syndrome veterans. Let's serve them now. Let's put money into the bill to do that.
So the Senator from Texas talked about the VA-MILCON bill that is right at the desk right now, sent out by the ranking minority member of the VA-MILCON Subcommittee, on which I serve, of Appropriations, Senator Hutchison. We are trying to get a vote on it. That bill--that bill alone--has nearly $8 billion worth of new spending in it for veterans. That is a near 17.5-
to 18-percent increase over last year. I believe it can be said, other than defense, to be the largest increase in a budget of all of Government for this year. But the money I am talking about, the new money for Priority 8, is not even in that one. All of this new money for veterans needs that is in the bill that we are being told cannot be passed, that we keep trying to get a vote on, does not even include the $1.5 billion to $8 billion necessary to fund this new program for veterans who are not needy, who are not service connected, and who have not been eligible for a good number of years.
That is why we are saying no. You take Priority 8 out of this, and the Veterans Traumatic Brain Injury and Health Programs Improvement Act, S. 1233, could pass, and it would pass on a voice vote because the Senate--Democrats and Republicans--have always supported our veterans. But we will not nor will I allow us to get caught in the game of first you argue on the other side that we have a war nobody likes and a President who is not managing it well, and then on the other side you are saying we are not taking care of our veterans. I reject that, and I reject it totally for these reasons.
While I was chair and ranking member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, and throughout the Bush administration, we have increased the funding for veterans on an annualized basis anywhere from 10 to 12 percent. When I talk about the appropriations bill that is at the desk for veterans being a historically large increase, well, the one the year before was a historically large increase. We have never ducked our responsibility to veterans. But we must prioritize, and we must focus on the truly needy, and we must focus on those who are coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan and traumatic brain injury and all of those who continue to suffer today. That is the first bill, and it will continue to be objected to until they take out those kinds of add-ons.
Let's talk about the second bill. The second bill is S. 1315. Now, that is an interesting bill because if you look at it on its face value, you say: Yes, that makes some sense. We are going to give a veterans' benefit enhancement to a certain class of veteran. Let me tell you who that veteran is.
The bill includes roughly $900 million in new entitlement spending on an array of veterans' benefits, but what is interesting is, it is moving money away from poor, elderly, disabled and wartime U.S. veterans. It is taking effectively $2,000 annually from our veterans and moving it over to a veteran who does not even live in the United States and is not a citizen of the United States--a Filipino veteran.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator has used 10 minutes.
Mr. CRAIG. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent for 3 additional minutes.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.
Mr. CRAIG. Why I object to this--and I call this bill the ``Robin Hood in reverse'' bill--is quite simple. If any of you have watched the Ken Burns PBS series ``The War,'' there is one whole segment of that about the war in the Philippines and the Filipinos who came forward to fight with Americans and even serve in American uniforms in defense of their land and ours during World War II. They did not become American citizens. They were Filipinos, and they have always received benefits. But this bill now reaches in and takes money away from our veterans, our poor veterans, because of a court case and is giving it to them.
Here is my problem. First of all, they do not live in this country, and they are not U.S. citizens. They are currently receiving benefits. But for the average U.S. veteran, their benefits, right now under law, cannot exceed $10,929 a year. That is roughly 24 percent of the average U.S. household income. But this benefit which is in this bill gives to a veteran--a non-U.S. citizen, living in the Philippines--100 percent of the average household income in the Philippines. They are taking that money away from our veterans to do it. That is the ``Robin Hood in reverse'' effect. At least Robin Hood, when he took money, left it in Nottingham. He spread it out amongst his own. Here we are taking money from our own and sending it all the way to the Philippines.
Now, let me say, and let me be very clear, Americans have treated Filipino veterans fairly. After the war, the United States provided $620 million--or $6.7 billion in today's dollars--to repair the Philippines. The United States provided $22.5 million--$196 million in today's dollars--for equipment and construction. We have a hospital in the Philippines, and Filipino veterans legally residing in the United States--in the United States--are fully eligible for all VA veterans' benefits based on their level of service. Survivors of Filipino veterans who died as a result of their service are eligible for educational assistance and all kinds of programs.
That is why I object. First of all, because we are taking money away from ours, but also because we have been more than generous since that war ended to our comrades, the Filipinos, who fought side by side with American men and women, who were in the Philippines at the time, after we were able to reclaim the Philippine Islands. So we have done wonderfully by them, and we have been very supportive of providing them with programs.
Remember, the average U.S. veterans' benefit--24 percent of U.S. average household income--is limited. Yet we are taking that money away from them now, giving it to Filipino veterans who are non-U.S. citizens, and increasing their benefit to over 100 percent of the average household income in the Philippines. U.S. dollars spent in the Philippines at that amount lifts--there is no question about it--lifts that Filipino dramatically. The question is, Is it fair? Is it equitable? My answer is, It is not. I offered to say, yes, we can bump them a little bit, but let's take the rest of this money and put it into educational benefits for our veterans coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan. The answer in the committee was no.
So that is why these bills are in trouble on the floor. They have loaded them up. They are too heavy. The tires are blowing out from under the trucks of these bills simply because too much is too much. In the instance of this, Disabled American Veterans--that great organization which is a loud spokesperson for our veterans--is saying: Whoa, wait a moment here. Enough is enough, and this is too much. They themselves oppose this legislation as it is currently written.
So here we have a funding bill on the floor with a 17.5- to 18-percent increase over last year's funding for veterans, and we are not allowed to vote on it. We have funding at the highest level ever for America's veterans, as we should and as we must, but these bills take us well beyond it in an unfunded environment or in one instance reaching in the pocket of our poor and disabled veteran and taking that money out and putting it into the pocket of a veteran living in the Philippines, who never became an American citizen, and who never came to this country, who has chosen to stay in his homeland. We now give them benefits, but this is a benefit well beyond what is even currently being offered to our own.
Those are the fundamental reasons why we have objected.
I was pleased when the Senator from Texas said to the Senator from Illinois, the assistant majority leader: No. Yes, we will object, and we are not embarrassed about doing it, because there have to be priorities to our funding, especially at a time when the VA budget that is at the desk is the largest increase of a veterans' budget, to my knowledge, ever. We are proud of that, but there is a point when enough is, in fact, enough.
I yield the floor.
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