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Congressman Bob Filner's Congressional Update - June 2008

Press Release

Location: Washington, DC

A Congressional "Thank You" for Memorial Day

As Chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, I am proud to announce that a package of bills to honor our nation's veterans was passed by the House of Representatives on May 20. The action comes as the nation prepares to honor and remember our fallen heroes on Memorial Day weekend. I thank my colleagues for supporting the legislative package which includes bills to address the health care needs of veterans, authorize major medical facility construction projects, and provide a cost-of-living adjustment for service-connected disability compensation rates for veterans. Here are a few of those bills:

* H.R. 3681 - To authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to advertise in the national media to promote awareness of VA benefits.

* H.R. 5826 - To increase, effective as of December 1, 2008, the rates of disability compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities and the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation for survivors of certain service-connected disabled veterans.

* H.R. 3819 - To require the Secretary of VA to reimburse veterans receiving emergency treatment in non-Department of VA facilities for such treatment until such veterans are transferred to Department facilities, and for other purposes.

* H.R. 5729 - To direct the Secretary of VA to provide comprehensive health care to children of Vietnam veterans born with Spina Bifida, and for other purposes.

* H.R. 6048 - To provide for the protection of child custody arrangements for parents who are members of the Armed Forces deployed in support of a contingency operation

* H.R. 5554 - To expand and improve health care services available to veterans from the Department of VA for substance use disorders, and for other purposes.

* H.R. 5856 - To authorize major medical facility projects and major medical facility leases for the Department of Veterans Affairs for fiscal year 2009, and for other purposes.

Caring for veterans is an ongoing cost of war, and the bills that were passed by the House will provide greater support to our veterans and their dependents.

Supporting the New GI Bill for the 21st Century

I recently co-sponsored H.R. 5740, bipartisan legislation which will offer the 1.7 million brave men and women who have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan educational benefits, on par with those provided to veterans of the World War II era. The legislation will give our returning troops the tools to succeed after military service, make service more attractive as we work to rebuild our military, and strengthen our sagging economy.

This new GI Bill for the 21st century is a key step in honoring the service and sacrifice of our troops and restoring the promise of the GI Bill to pay for a full four-year college education. Not only will this strengthen our military, it will also make the heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan part of a new American economic recovery—just like after World War II.

Under the new GI Bill, service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, who have served 3 years on active duty, would receive benefits to cover the costs of a four-year education up to the level of the most expensive in-state public school, along with a stipend for housing, books and other expenses. Education benefits would be available to troops who have served at least 3 months of active duty service since September 11, 2001, including members of the National Guard and Reserve. Right now, veterans' education benefits cover only about 60 percent of the cost of a public-school education.

The original GI Bill launched millions of families on a course of prosperity and toward achieving the American Dream—and set the American economy on the right course after a draining war. It made a free college education available to more than 15 million war veterans after World War II. By 1956, about 8 million World War II veterans took advantage of the GI Bill education and job training. Every dollar spent on the original GI Bill created a seven-fold return for the economy.

The new GI Bill is broadly supported by all major veterans' organizations, including the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The bill has 249 cosponsors in the House (including 71 Republicans) and 58 sponsors in the Senate (including 11 Republicans).

Backing the Border Health Security Act

In May, I co-sponsored H.R. 5592, the Border Health Security Act of 2008. H.R. 5592 would provide $10 million in funding for local governments and organizations to improve border residents' health and preparedness for bioterrorism.

Border communities need additional assistance to ensure that they have access to high quality healthcare, as well as the resources necessary to respond to a terrorist attack. I am proud to co-sponsor this bill, and I will continue to work with my colleagues to strengthen our border healthcare system.

The bill directs the Department of Health and Human Services to authorize grant funding for public healthcare and infrastructure, behavioral and mental health services, workforce training and development, community health workers, health disparities in the border area, environmental health and health education.

The rapid exchange of people, ideas and culture are what makes our border communities vibrant, unique places to live. Unfortunately, border communities are also forced to bear the economic burden of providing costly services, and I believe that the Federal Government must take a leading role in ensuring that the quality of life in our communities does not suffer due to international pressures. This legislation provides an important first step.

Celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month

The month of May was a special opportunity to pay tribute to the contributions of American Jews throughout the history of the United States.

When the first Jewish settlers came to this land, they sought a place of promise where they could practice their faith in freedom and live in liberty. During this month, we celebrate the rich history of the American Jewish community and honor the great contributions they have made to our country.

As a nation of immigrants, the United States is better and stronger because Jewish people from all over the world have chosen to become American citizens. Since arriving in 1654, American Jews have strengthened our country and helped shape our way of life. Their commitment to excellence in science, public service, law, medicine, athletics, literature and countless other fields has enriched our nation and enhanced our culture. In addition, through strong ties to family and community, American Jews reflect a compassionate spirit and set a positive example for others.

My father's life reveals a powerful example of the spirit and values of the Jewish American Community. As an American soldier who could speak Yiddish, he was selected from the ranks to help liberate the Dachau concentration camp during World War II. Having viewed such painful and flagrant suffering, he became an advocate for all human rights and a strong supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He understood the devastation that is caused by discrimination and hatred, and he decided to do everything in his power to stop the spread of prejudice. I was fortunate to grow up under his positive influence, and I am proud that many Jews, and many Americans of all faiths, share his love of freedom and equality.

Jewish American Heritage Month provides us with an opportunity to reflect on all the diverse ways in which American Jews have enriched our culture and enhanced our way of life over the last 353 years.

Celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Last month was also a great opportunity to pay tribute to the contributions of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community and to address the challenges facing them.

The AAPI community is one of the fastest growing populations. An estimated 15.9 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, representing a diverse community of backgrounds, cultures, and experiences, now make their homes in the United States making valuable contributions to every aspect of American life. Their unique contributions enhance the moral fabric and character of our great nation.

I am honored to salute the more than 48,000 brave AAPI men and women who have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001 and the 320,000 AAPI veterans who have courageously served our country in the military. It is in their name that I will continue to work to ensure that this Congress honors our commitment to our troops and our veterans.

As an historian and the Chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, I know that Filipino World War II veterans have been deeply wronged. I am fighting to ensure that they receive equity and benefits for their contributions to the successful outcome of WWII. I commend the Senate's action, passing S. 1315, the Veterans Benefits Enhancement Act of 2007, and I call on the House to pass this historic Act!

The new Democratic-led Congress has been working on improving the lives of Asian American and Pacific Islander families, along with all other American families.

In the current economic downturn, a great number of AAPI families - like other American families - are struggling to make ends meet - facing stagnant incomes and skyrocketing gas prices, food prices, college costs, and health care costs. The New Direction Congress has responded and in February enacted a bipartisan economic stimulus package that is providing tax rebates to millions of hardworking families - with the vast majority of Asian American and Pacific Islanders receiving these rebates.

In addition, the economic stimulus package is helping the nation's small businesses - doubling the amount small businesses can immediately write off their taxes for investments in plant and equipment this year from $125,000 to $250,000. This will aid the 1.1 million AAPI-owned small businesses.

In addition, last year, Congress raised the minimum wage, benefiting more than 250,000 hardworking Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; cut the cost of college for the more than 176,000 AAPI students enrolled in degree-granting institutions; and enacted an energy security bill that will save Americans, including 15.9 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, $700 to $1,000 a year at the pump.

As we celebrate the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the nation, we must rise up and take our country in a new direction to meet the challenges facing AAPI families. The New Direction Congress will continue to take further steps to change the way we do business in Washington, to make America safer, strengthen our economy, and restore accountability. Together, we can make the American dream a reality for all Americans.

Holding a Hearing to Get At the Truth About Veterans' Suicides

Last month, as Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, I held a hearing to learn the truth about veterans' suicides. Lawmakers questioned whether bureaucrats at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have attempted to manipulate suicide data to portray a lesser problem. I called for VA Secretary Peake to remove Dr. Kussman and Dr. Katz from their positions at the VA for their role in obfuscating veteran suicide data.

The first step in addressing a problem is to understand the scope and extent of the problem. In the case of the VA and the epidemic of veteran suicides, either the VA has not adequately attempted to determine the scope of the problem, which is an indictment of the VA's basic competence, or the VA knows the extent of the problem, but has attempted to obfuscate and minimize the problem to veterans, Congress, and the American people, which is an indictment of the leadership of the entire Department.

In November 2007, CBS News aired a story entitled "Suicide Epidemic Among Veterans" and found that veterans were more than twice as likely to commit suicide in 2005 as non-veterans. The news report showed that veterans aged 20 through 24 had an extremely high proportional rate of suicide compared to civilians the same age. Veterans' advocates called on the VA to address what they deemed an epidemic of mental health problems.

On December 12, 2007, I conducted a full commitee hearing entitled "Stopping Suicides: Mental Health Challenges within the Department of Veterans Affairs." At the hearing, Dr. Ira Katz, a representative from the VA, downplayed the CBS News report and stated, "their number for veteran suicides in not, in fact, an accurate reflection of the rates of suicide." Dr. Katz also stressed a low-rate of veteran suicide, stating that "from the beginning of the war through the end of 2005 there were 144 known suicides among these new veterans."

At the December hearing, I stated that suicide can be a very difficult public health crisis to gauge. I stressed that perfect statistics were not essential to aggressively respond to this issue, and I expressed concern about the lack of an immediate and urgent response from the VA.

Just three days after the hearing, VA's Under Secretary for Health Dr. Kussman, referred to a newspaper article in an internal e-mail and wrote that "18 veterans kill themselves every day and this is confirmed by the VA's own statistics. Is that true? Sounds awful but if one is considering 24 million veterans." That same day, Dr. Katz responded: "There are about 18 suicides per day among America's 25 million veterans."

In February 2008, Dr. Katz sent an e-mail stating "Shh! - Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?"

Either Dr. Katz knew that the CBS figures were indeed an accurate reflection of the rates of suicide at the December hearing or he had a sudden epiphany just three days later. It angers me that there was data within the VA that seemed to dispute what we were told in the hearing in December. Nearly five months later, we are again holding a hearing on the tragic issue of suicide among our veterans and what the VA is doing to address what is clearly an epidemic.

The opening statements of all the witnesses and a link to the webcast are available on the Committee website at

Supporting the Passage of Major Housing Legislation

Last month, the House of Representatives forcefully responded to the mortgage and foreclosure crisis that has plagued the economy, and more importantly, personally affected too many Americans.

The House also took the necessary step in offering protection to our brave men and women in uniform by prohibiting the foreclosure of property owned by a service member for one year following a period of military service.

For many of our returning service members and veterans, the stress of deployment is still prevalent when they return home. The action taken by the House today will provide these heroes with not only the necessary time to readjust, but will also ensure they have the opportunity to do this in the comfort and security of their own home.

Currently, service members and veterans are protected from foreclosure for ninety days after deployment. This one year extension will provide the time to catch up on payments, make alternative arrangements with a lender, or in the worst case scenario, sell their home.

I thank my House colleagues, Financial Services Committee Chairman Frank and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rangel, for incorporating my bill, H.R. 4883, into their legislation. I applaud their good work and their commitment to addressing the needs of our nation's heroes.

Introducing Legislation to Protect Flag Production

In May, I introduced legislation to ensure that all American flags flown over federal government buildings and on federal property should be made in the United States.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that $5.3 million worth of American flags were imported from other countries in 2006, mostly from China. Although U.S. law requires every flag be labeled with its "country of origin," the number of foreign-made American flags has steadily grown over the past few years.

The American flag is much more than our national symbol. It embodies our courage, liberty, and justice. The flag reminds us each and every day of the sacrifices that were made for justice and freedom. So, as we proudly fly the Stars and Stripes, we must ensure that they were homespun in the United States!

Backing a Plan to Bring Down Gas Prices

I recently joined an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives in support of legislation that would temporarily suspend the filling of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) until the end of the year to bring down the cost of gasoline. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve Fill Suspension and Consumer Protection Act was approved by a vote of 385-25. The U.S. Senate passed a similar provision by a vote of 97-1.

For the last several weeks, gas prices have hit a new record high nearly every day, and drivers in California are suffering. This legislation, passed by Congress, will hopefully provide immediate relief for middle class families struggling with high gas prices.

Filling of the SPR takes 70,000 barrels of oil off the market each day. A temporary suspension could reduce gas prices from 5 to 24 cents a gallon.

The House legislation temporarily suspends the Energy Department's (DOE) ability to directly purchase oil for the SPR through December 2008, unless the price of oil drops below $75 per barrel. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is roughly 97 percent full - the highest level ever - with enough oil to meet our national security needs.

President Bush has the power to stop filling the SPR and Democratic leaders, along with 16 Senate Republicans have urged the President to take this common sense step. Unfortunately, the President has refused to take action and made Congressional action necessary. Multiple Presidents, including President Bush, President Clinton and the first President Bush have previously suspended the fill or tapped oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. In 2000, after such action, the price of oil dropped down by one-third - from $30 to $20 per barrel.

Given the state of the American economy, it is unacceptable that President Bush has failed to act to help American families and businesses at the pump. Democrats will continue to fight to bring down gas prices and help hard-working families.

Supporting the New Farm Bill

Last month, I backed a bipartisan Farm Bill that will strengthen American agriculture, help families facing high food costs and make a substantial commitment to land conservation and our energy independence.

With food prices soaring, families are barely able to make ends meet. The new farm bill will help these families while supporting our farmers and taking important steps toward reforming farm payments.

Nearly three-fourths of the Farm Bill will support nutrition programs that help 38 million American families afford healthy food. The legislation's updates to the food stamp provisions will help about 11 million people by 2012. The bill also provides much-needed support to emergency feeding organizations, such as food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens by increasing TEFAP funding by $1.25 billion - with $50 million for immediate shortages at food pantries. Additionally, the bill helps schools provide healthy snacks to students, with $1 billion for free fresh fruits and vegetables.

Struggling farmers will receive much needed aid from the legislation. The Farm Bill increases funding for programs to better meet the needs of socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. The legislation reforms disaster assistance to make it a permanent, paid for program for farmers with crops stricken by natural disasters such as drought and flood.

The Farm Bill includes several provisions from which Imperial County farmers will have the opportunity to benefit. The bill makes critical investments in our rural communities by providing funding for critical water and wastewater projects in rural areas, improving access to new technology, and renewing critical rural infrastructure.

To encourage conservation efforts, the Farm Bill boosts conservation programs that reduce soil erosion, enhance water supplies, improve water and air quality, increase wildlife habitat and reduce damage caused by floods and other natural disasters by $7.9 million.

Under the bill, farmers will play a greater role in fueling our energy independence. The Farm Bill invests $1 billion in renewable energy focusing on new technologies and new sources. It takes another critical step in transitioning biofuels beyond corn to non-food crops and sources such as switchgrass, woodchips and corn stalks.

The Farm Bill is vital to California's farmers. This legislation not only takes important steps to help working families, promote renewable energy and protect our environment but also recognizes our hardworking farmers for their great contribution in feeding our nation and the world!

Proposing the Creation of a Postage Stamp to Honor Slain Officers

Last month, I introduced legislation in support of a postage stamp to honor law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.

Too many police officers are killed or injured every day. We must honor those who have sacrificed their lives in order to make our neighborhoods and communities safer.

The legislation would express the sense of Congress that a stamp, called the Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Stamp, should be issued to honor law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.

On average, a law enforcement officer is killed in America every other day. Since 1794, when recordkeeping started, more than 17,900 officers have lost their lives in service to their communities. In 2007, 186 officers were killed in the line of duty, an increase of more than 28 percent from the year prior.

Nearly nine hundred thousand Americans serve as law enforcement officers in communities small and large across the nation. These officers serve with commitment and distinction every day, as they continue to place themselves in harm's way to protect their fellow citizens.

Awarding Eric Miller of Brawley Union High School, the Winner of the 51st District Congressional Arts Competition, An Artistic Discovery 2008!

I recently announced the winner of the 51st District Congressional Arts Competition, An Artistic Discovery 2008! Eric Miller, competition winner and student at Brawley Union High School, will be flown to Washington, DC where he will be honored in the National Congressional Arts Competition. The winning artwork is a self portait of Eric was done solely with chalk pastels.

Constituent Mail Bag

From Chula Vista:

I am concerned about the growing number of recalls of all kinds of tainted foods. Stories about dangerous beef, chili, spinach, peanut butter, and many other products have been making headlines for far too long. We need strong food safety reform now, so that we can have faith again that the food we buy for ourselves and our families won't make us sick, or worse.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for the safety of much of the food we eat both food imported from countries like China, as well as food produced here in the U.S. But the FDA is failing to protect consumers, and needs more money and authority to get the job done.

Both the House and the Senate are considering fixes to our broken food safety system. I urge you to make sure that the fixes are as strong as possible.

The time for strong food safety reform is now. Mealtime should not be a game of chance. Please enact strong food safety legislation by this summer that includes the protections outlined above. Thank you.

Congressman Filner replies:

Thank you for contacting me about the importance of food safety.

I wholeheartedly agree! You will be pleased to know that I have co-sponsored the Food Safety Recall Information Act, which would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to list all the retail stores and school districts that have received food products that were subjected to a USDA recall. It is essential that the FDA take steps to ensure the safety of our entire food supply, and I will work with my colleagues for the most stringent standards for consumer protection!

I appreciate your advocacy on this important issue.

Useful Website: Thomas--Legislative Information on the Internet

THOMAS, a Web site maintained by the Library of Congress, makes federal legislative information freely available via the Internet. Users can search for information on federal legislation, see what's happening in the House of Representatives, search or browse the Congressional Record, and view the text of historical documents. The THOMAS Web site answers frequently asked questions about how to use the site and the best ways to find the information that's available.

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