Keeping the Promise: Accomplishments for Our Nation's Veterans in the 110th Congress
When I became Chairman of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, the VA was strained to its breaking point by years of chronic underfunding and a "business as usual" attitude. The Committee set out an aggressive agenda to identify the needs of our veterans and to ensure that the promises we made to them were kept. The Committee held 107 hearings, 50 percent more than the previous Congress, and we followed through and passed 75 quality veterans' bills-- more than the previous two Congresses combined.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created hundreds of thousands of veterans. It is simply our duty as a Nation, when we put our men and women in harm's way, to care for them when they return. Although the Democratic Congress has focused on the issues affecting our returning service members, I vowed, when I became Chairman, to never forget the service and sacrifice of our veterans from previous conflicts -- and the Democratic Congress have lived up to that promise. Thanks to our efforts, the VA is in a better position today to care for all of our veterans.
Our aggressive agenda culminated last week in the passage of comprehensive legislation to improve health care and benefits for our veterans. Below is a list of accomplishments that the Democratic Congress has been able to achieve. We were not able to do all that we wanted to, but we did a lot, and next Congress, working together, we plan on building upon our successes and making sure that we honor our warriors by taking care of them when they return. We will keep our promise to our Nation's heroes of the past, present and future.
1. A G.I. Bill for the 21st Century
* The Post 9/11 G.I. Bill is the greatest overhaul of the G.I. Bill in over 20 years, covering the cost of a college education at a public university.
* Reserve and National Guard benefits are tied to length of service better reflecting the sacrifice of these citizen soldiers.
* Soldiers and veterans now have the option of transferring education benefits to their spouses and children.
2. Address the Housing Needs of Veterans
* Sweeping legislation provided veterans with the necessary time to readjust from the battlefield back into their communities without fear of losing their home.
* The Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 prohibits foreclosure for nine months after military service and provides a much needed increase to the VA home loan limit.
* The Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2008 revamped the VA home loan program by enabling more veterans to refinance their existing high-risk loans with VA loans.
* The Heroes Earnings Assistance and Relief Tax Act of 2008 expands homeownership opportunities by making thousands of veterans eligible for low-interest loans.
3. A Budget Worthy of Our Veterans
* The cost of the war must include the cost of the warrior. This Democratic Congress added $16.3 billion dollars worth of new money for veterans' health care and services.
* House Democrats did more to increase veterans funding in the last 2 years than Republicans did in the last 12 years.
* This unprecedented increase proves that supporting our troops and veterans is not just a slogan for Democrats - it is our mandate!
4. Addressing Health Care Treatment & Access
* Over 40% of our veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom are entering the VA health care system. Of these veterans, 41% are seeking mental health care.
* The Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act addresses the troubling increase of suicide in our veteran community. It offers comprehensive services to veterans and set up a 24-hour toll-free suicide hotline. The hotline has already served more than 30,000 veterans, family members, and friends.
* The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 provides an additional three years of VA health care eligibility for returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans (for a total of five years) and improves and expands the VA's ability to care for returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury.
* The Veterans' Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act of 2008 expands mental health services, increases research through the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and provides much needed counseling for families of veterans. This bill also mandates a program to help rural veterans get the health care they need closer to home.
5. Increasing Benefits for Veterans
* Last year Congress dramatically increased the gas reimbursement from 11 cents to 28.5 cents a mile. This year, we will increase the veteran's mileage reimbursement rate to the same as a government employee and freeze the required deductible at last year's level.
* The Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2008 adds job protections for returning veterans, increases the opportunity for injured veterans to participate in independent living programs, allows deploying service members to terminate or suspend cell phone contracts without penalty, and provides additional support to veteran-owned small business when contracting with the government.
* The Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2008 also provides grants to allow severely injured veterans and service members participate in the United States Olympic Paralympics program.
6. Cleaning up the Benefits Backlog
* The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008 increased the VA budget and focused added attention on the disgraceful claims backlog. Already, the VA has hired 3,100 additional claims processors, with 2,000 more planned for this year.
* The Veterans Disability Benefits Claims Modernization Act of 2008 provides essential reforms to bring the claims processing system up-to-date for more accurate and timely delivery of benefits to veterans, families, and survivors.
* The Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2008 also includes a pilot program that dramatically alters the way claims are processed for veterans. Fully-developed claims certified by a Veterans Service Officer are eligible for expedited processing allowing veterans to receive their benefit more expeditiously.
7. Oversight of the Department of Veterans Affairs
* The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs took seriously its responsibility to make sure that veterans' programs and the VA were getting the job done for veterans.
* After rising rates of veteran suicide were reported, the Committee held a series of explosive hearings to investigate the manipulation of suicide data and to hold VA senior leadership accountable for their handling of the issues.
* The Committee scrutinized a series of PTSD-related issues, including a volatile e-mail from a VA employee suggesting that VA providers downgrade the diagnosis of PTSD to "adjustment disorders."
* When Chantix, an anti-smoking drug, was linked to suicidal thoughts and aggressive and erratic behavior, the Committee investigated whether the VA adequately protected veterans during an on-going research study involving Chantix and veterans suffering from PTSD. Immediate action by the Committee determined that the VA failed to immediately contact veterans participating in the study to discuss the increased risk.
* When the VA announced it was outsourcing the administrative implementation of the new GI Bill, the Committee held hearings to get at the facts.
8. New Cooperative Approaches - Seamless Transition and Continuum of Care
* Transmission of electronic medical records between the Pentagon and VA is critical for the continuum of care of our wounded warriors. This Congress mandated that VA and DOD establish electronic medical records that can be quickly and easily shared, and made tremendous strides increasing cooperation between these two federal agencies to improve benefits and services for active-duty service members and veterans.
It has never been more important than during this time of war to keep the promises that have been made to our veterans. The Democratic-led Congress will continue our aggressive approach as we work together to provide our veterans with the benefits that they have earned and deserve.
Extending Purple Heart to All Deceased Prisoners of War!
Last month, I announced that the Purple Heart will be presented posthumously to all prisoners of war who die in captivity. My bill, the Honor Our Fallen Prisoners of War Act, which passed by Congress in 2006 made this possible. The Department of Defense recently announced its complete implementation.
The law now presumes that the death of all service members who die in captivity was the result of enemy action or the result of wounds incurred in action with the enemy during capture and imprisonment. Before passage of my bill, prisoners of war who died during imprisonment of wounds inflicted by an instrument of war were eligible for posthumous Purple Heart recognition, but those who died of starvation, disease, abuse, freezing or other causes during captivity were not. There should be no false distinction indicating more courage or more sacrifice by some prisoners of war over others.
The Honor Our Fallen Prisoners of War Act had over 200 co-sponsors and broad bi-partisan support in Congress. In addition, many major Veteran Service Organizations supported the bill, including the American Legion, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, and the American Ex-Prisoners of War. The Senate bill was introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer.
The inspiration for my bill came from Wilbert Shorty' Estabrook, who was imprisoned for more than three years during the Korean War, and Rick and Brenda Tavares. Brenda's uncle, Corporal Melvin Morgan, died in Korea of starvation and beatings in 1950 at the age of 20.
Each military department will publish application procedures and will ensure that the information is accessible to the general public. Family members with questions may contact the Services: Army Military Awards Branch (703) 325-8700, Navy Personnel Command Retired Records Section (314) 592 -1150, Air Force Personnel Center (800) 616-3775, and Marine Corps Military Awards Branch (730) 784-9340.
Learning From the Last Eight Years
As we rush headlong into this fall's election, what can we learn from the eight years we've just been through? Without the White House, and with slim majorities in Congress, Democrats have spent the past two years working to bring change to our country.
But most of the past eight years has been a story of conservative control: Republicans have had two terms in the White House and six years at all the levers of powersomething not even President Ronald Reagan had. Their ideology was put to a definitive test.
And that ideology failed. Given a tremendous opportunity to govern, Republicans have left our nation in a deep hole.
Take the economy, which is even now spinning into recession and a Wall Street crisis.
Republicans had the opportunity to head off that crisis, but they ignored its signs instead. In all their years in control of Congress, Republicans failed to address the safety and soundness of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They failed to prevent the abusive lending practices at the root of the subprime debacle. And they prided themselves as deregulators, taking the economic referees off the field when we needed them most.
At the same time, the Bush Administration saddled America with record deficits and debt, setting off a crisis of confidence in our financial system. The combined result of all that recklessness has been a financial meltdown and deep economic uncertainty.
What about the economic impact on families? A few months ago, President Bush said, "In the long run, our economy is going to be fine." We all believe in a bright future for America, but that attitude glosses over the millions of working Americans who are hurting right now. Since President Bush took office, nearly six million more Americans are living in poverty. And last month, America lost 159,000 jobs, bringing us to three quarters of a million jobs lost this year alone.
What about energy policy? How that's worked out really depends on your perspective. If you're an oil company executive, Republican policies have been a tremendous success. They've helped you to the biggest profits in American history, and you've been getting billion-dollar subsidies on top of that.
But the rest of us are stuck with gas prices that have more than doubled since President Bush took office. Meanwhile, Republicans have voted against nearly every single piece of legislation we've brought to the House Floor to confront high gas prices.
On healthcare, President Bush vetoed the very same Children's Health Insurance Program expansion he called for when he was trying to get re-elected. Most House Republicans backed him up, and 4 million eligible disadvantaged children lost out on health insurance. In all, the number of Americans without health insurance has increased by more than 7 million over the last eight years.
Foreign policy, too, is a story of failed promises. As America began the Iraq War, Donald
Rumsfeld predicted, "It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months." Today, of course, that war has stretched on longer than World War II, costing us 4,168 American lives and some $600 billion and stretching our military to the breaking point. Meanwhile, Afghanistan smolders and al Qaeda is regrouping.
In contrast, Democrats have focused on using our slim majority to change what we can for working Americans. We enacted a 21st-century GI Bill to guarantee college for all of our veterans; a raise in the minimum wage for the first time in more than a decade; the most sweeping ethics reform since Watergate; and implementation of the 9/11 Commission recommendations to make our country stronger.
On energy, we boosted fuel efficiency standards for the first time in more than 30 years, and increased investment in renewable energy.
To confront the recession, Democrats passed a job-creating stimulus package at the beginning of the year and a landmark housing rescue bill this summer. We passed comprehensive lending reform to attack the root of the financial crisis. And when President Bush came to us last month with a flawed economic recovery plan, I voted against it twice because the bill did not provide enough direct help to keep people in their homes and boost the economy, starting with Main Street first!
In the next Congress, my fellow Democrats and I will continue to heed the call for change, focusing on the needs of the working Americans who elected us to a majority two years ago.
Delivering $400,000 for Wildfire Protection in Chula Vista
On Tuesday, October 14th, I delivered a giant check for $400,000 to the City of Chula Vista's Wildland-Urban Re-Vegetation and Interface Project. Congressman Filner secured this funding for Chula Vista through the FY2009 Consolidated Appropriations Act under the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Pre-Disaster Mitigation program.
Why wait until disaster strikes to take action? Wildfires have been identified as the primary threat to Chula Vista, and the city has carefully designed a plan to reduce that risk. This project is based on a detailed analysis of Chula Vista's specific needs so the path is clear - we will protect Chula Vista by addressing our vulnerability directly. We learned from what happened in 2003 and 2007, and we are taking action today to protect public health and safety tomorrow.
With the lessons of the 2003 and 2007 southern California wildfires still on the minds of many residents, the City of Chula Vista is moving forward with the adoption of its own Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Code. The WUI Code will be specific to Chula Vista's climate, geography, and topography; it will also balance the need for wildfire risk reduction with the need to manage plants and animals protected by the city's Multiple Species Conservation Program Subarea Plan.
A significant wildfire threat exists within Chula Vista because of several hazardous wildland areas and canyons within the city, including the perimeter of the city adjacent to the Otay Reservoir, the intermix surrounding Rice Canyon and neighboring canyons, and the lower Otay River bottom. The City of Chula Vista has substantiated these threats using fire modeling assessments. This known hazard was further validated during the 2003 Mine Fine, which burned right up to the city's boundary and on the shores of Otay Lake, due east of several new developments. During the 2007 Wildfire Storm, the fire jumped Proctor Valley Road, threatening the Bella Lago community in the northeast section of Chula Vista.
Help with Heating Bills Is On the Way!
I applaud the recent release of $5.1 billion in energy assistance to help seniors and working families keep the heat on this winter.
America urgently needed this energy assistance provided by the "New Direction" Congress. Families are struggling to make ends meet and heating costs are expected to reach record levels again. That is why the New Direction Congress made it a top priority to provide families with relief from high energy costs - doubling this critical investment in energy relief to help seniors and working families keep the heat on this winter.
This $248 million in help with heating bills for families here in California is critical for Americans paying record prices to heat their homes. This winter, Americans using heating oil will pay more than $2,300 per family - and since 2001, home heating expenditures, on average, have more than doubled.
We need more of this type of bipartisan cooperation in Washington as we work quickly to address the serious and urgent challenges of the slowing economy and high energy prices.
The recently enacted spending law will provide Low-Income Home Energy Assistance to an additional 2 million households and increase the average grant from $355 to $550 - $2.5 billion more than FY2008 and full funding required by the Energy Law!
This is another key achievement to protect consumers from skyrocketing energy costs as part of the New Direction for Energy Independence. Congress has also enacted critical tax credits to launch a clean, green renewable energy future for America and create and save more than 500,000 jobs and raised vehicle fuel efficiency standards for the first time in 32 years.
Securing Over $1 Million to Salton Sea Research and Restoration Project
On Friday, October 24th, I presented an honorary giant check for $1,132,000 for the Salton Sea Research Project to represent funding that has already been transferred to the Bureau of Reclamation for these efforts. The Salton Sea Research Project involves State and Federal government entities to improve water quality and enhance the recreational and development potential of the Sea. To further support the Project's efforts, I also worked with my colleagues in Congress to form the Salton Sea Task Force.
Since the mid-1960's, we've been working together to study the Salton Sea in order to keep the water clean and help people enjoy this natural area, which is both beautiful and functional. Every time I visit, I am reminded about how many excellent men and women work hard every day to bring these projects to life and make the most out of every federal dollar I'm able to deliver.
With the help of federal funding, the Bureau of Reclamation works with the California Department of Water Resources (CDWR) and the Salton Sea Authority on research studies and technical projects. In February 2007, the Bureau of Reclamation published a draft report on its efforts to determine the preferred action plan for restoring the Salton Sea. Congress subsequently passed the FY2008 Omnibus Appropriations Act, which included $1,132,000 for the Salton Sea Research Project, including $494,000 for restoration of the Alamo and New Rivers.
"The Imperial Irrigation District is pleased that Congressman Filner recognizes, as we do, that action must be taken to address the long-standing environmental problems at the Salton Sea," said John Pierre Menvielle, President of the Imperial Irrigation District Board of Directors. "We know the Congressman shares our belief that finding and funding a long-term solution to the problems affecting the Sea is of vital importance to the residents of the Imperial and Coachella Valleys."
The research techniques used to understand the dynamics of the Salton Sea ecosystem include analysis of localized weather data, modeling water currents, charting underwater topography, and evaluating dike construction methods. Scientists must balance the priorities of preserving fish and wildlife health, human recreational needs, and economic development potential, while continuing the Salton Sea's use as a reservoir for irrigation drainage.
Honoring Leon Herzog for Service During 2007 Wildfires
I recently honored Leon Herzog, owner of the Barrett Junction Café, with a Congressional Proclamation for welcoming community members fleeing the Harris Fires in October 2007.
Constituent Mail Bag
From National City:
I'm asking you to oppose the Wall Street bailout bill. I feel this bill does not help middle class and lower class Americans. I do not think it right to bail out irresponsible investors and businesses. Where is the bailout for Americans like myself that have already lost their job, home, and credit? I am troubled that there doesn't seem to be any other options or plans being discussed.
Thank you for your time and again, please oppose the $700 billion bail out plan presented by the Administration and Treasury Department.
Congressman Filner replies:
Thank you for contacting me about your concerns over the bailout of the financial industry.
I wholeheartedly agree! The Bush Administration wanted a blank check with no accountability required for the people who caused this financial crisis. You will be glad to know I voted against both versions of the bailout legislation. Rest assured, I will not be swayed by the Bush Administration's fear-mongering. You can count on me to look out for the American people as Congress continues to debate the future of the financial sector.
I appreciate your advocacy and share your concern on this important issue.
Useful Web Site: Energy Savers!
As the winter slowly creeps upon us, so will the need to heat our homes. As the cost of energy has been on the rise, I am recommend everyone visit http://energysavers.gov/, which has a host of useful tips on how to save on your utility bills this winter.