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Hearing of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee - U.S Department of Veterans Affairs Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2013


Location: Washington, DC

Good morning, and welcome to this morning's hearing to review the Administration's Fiscal Year 2013 budget request for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Mr. Secretary, I thank you and your team for joining us today.

Although we are still combing through the budget, a process that will likely involve further follow-up questions after this hearing, I think it's safe to say that viewed in context of an extraordinarily tight fiscal climate, a 4.3% increase in discretionary spending is certainly positive.

That said, outcomes are what really matter…veterans don't care about numbers, they want their claims decided faster, their health care taken care of, and their aging facilities upgraded.

I do have some questions about how this funding request relates to the actual resource requirement, but I'll get to those later. I want to use the remainder of my time to talk about the issue of sequestration and VA.

Mr. Secretary, let me begin by saying that I agree with you and the President that sequestration is not desirable, whether it is applied to DoD, VA, or any agency. I think all of us agree on that.

I also agree that specific guidance as to how sequestration will be carried out and its impact at the operational level is something that will likely be determined a bit farther down the road, but not much farther. For example, will there be layoffs? Will maintenance needs be postponed? Will facility activations be delayed? Those are details that I'm curious whether VA has looked at, and they probably should have already, but I can understand if we aren't quite at that point yet.

Finally, we are in agreement that there is an ambiguity in the law with respect to VA that requires a clarifying legal decision that only the Office of Management and Budget can make.

That is where my agreement with the Administration and its series of non-responses to me, and other Committee members, ends. For months I've been trying to get clarity about what we, as a Committee, and veterans, as our constituency, deserve to have resolved. Namely, because of a conflict in the law, is VA even part of the picture should a sequester order occur? Do we have cause to be concerned?

There is no such ambiguity with respect to DoD. There is no ambiguity with respect to most other non-defense programs. All know that those agencies are definitively in play.

But because the Administration has not clarified the matter, no one can say if VA is completely exempt or not. I have legal opinions from lawyers from both the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office saying, in their judgment, VA appears to be completely exempt. They provided these opinions to me in a matter of days, proving that the legal issues at hand aren't that complicated.

But their judgments, mine, and that of others in Congress carry no weight presently. Only OMB can resolve this. After multiple requests from this Committee, a secretive legal opinion from VA lawyers delivered to OMB several months ago, and obvious concern expressed by veterans' organizations, the question still has been left to linger.

The obvious question, is "why?". Why not resolve this now? The ambiguity will remain in law even if Congress and the President agree on finding $1.2 Trillion in cuts to avoid a sequester next January. This is an issue that needs clarifying once and for all.

Mr. Secretary, I know you're not the holdup. And I don't direct this next comment at you. But I believe what we're seeing here is a cynical attempt to keep veterans twisting in the wind to create more pressure to act on the immediate sequester threat. I say to the President, there is enough pressure to act already without threatening veterans. One way or another, a decision must be made.

I won't hold my breath any longer waiting for an OMB decision. I've introduced legislation to clarify the law as it stands now. The Protect VA Healthcare Act of 2012 would simply amend the law to conform to what Congress intended when it voted on the Budget Control Act. I ask all my colleagues here for their support. We need to get this resolved. If the President won't lead, then we must.

With that, I yield to the Ranking Member for his opening statement.

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