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Sorry, Charlie: Your Time Is Up

New rules on how much time veterans groups have to present budget testimony to Congress seem designed to limit vets' influence on funding decisions.
 
 
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President Bush is scheduled to submit his budget request for the 2007 fiscal year to Congress on Feb. 6, and the country's largest, most influential veterans groups are already on the offensive, saying they are being shortchanged again.

Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee Steve Buyer, R-Ind., has implemented new rules: Veterans groups must submit their written testimony for budget requests and policy initiatives to the committee by noon on Feb. 6. Two days later, veterans groups will present their testimony to the committee -- but, for the first time in 60 years, they'll be constrained by a three-minute limit.

"The revised schedule for hearings and the change in format amount to a slap in the face to individual veterans as well as the groups that represent them in the public policy arena. Chairman Buyer has slammed the door in the face of America's veterans," says Paul Jackson, National Commander of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), a 1.3 million-member group that works to improve the lives of disabled veterans.

"Buyer should not silence the voice of American veterans in the very committee that's charged with ensuring the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has what it needs to care for American veterans," adds Peter Gaytan, director of the veterans affairs and rehabilitation division for the American Legion, a 2.7 million-member veterans organization.

Joe Violante, national legislative director with DAV, says veterans groups are traditionally given 10 minutes to convey their budget needs, and the time constraints have never been strictly enforced. "What we do is give Congress a perspective on what's actually happening out there because we hear from our members about the problems they face on a day-to-day basis," he says.

During wartime, it only seems appropriate to give veterans groups even more time to articulate their needs. What can be accomplished in three minutes? "It just seems so different now," says Violante. "During past wars, Congress has been more liberal with veterans' benefits. Now we're seeing the exact opposite. They're looking at ways to cut our programs and limit spending levels on veterans programs. It's an entirely different atmosphere."

Five national veterans groups, including DAV, American Legion and Paralyzed Veterans of America have all called on Chairman Buyer to rescind the new rules and allow them to speak for the usual 10 minutes. So far, the only request he has granted is to give the groups 10 minutes to speak on legislative issues, but the three-minute rule still applies to budget testimony.

Chairman Buyer's office responded to questions about the time change, although Buyer did not make himself available for an interview. Former and current Republican members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee did not respond to interview requests.

Media coverage might cause politicians and the public to pressure Chairman Buyer to give veterans the time they deserve -- if the mainstream media would cover the changes.

"Media coverage of veterans issues is getting better, but overall, it's been pathetic," says Larry Scott, a four-year Army veteran and operator of VAWatchdog.org. "The media reports say Bush increased the veterans budget by 57 percent, but people are being misled by that statement. The majority of the VA budget is mandatory. The money is just put in there. The problem is that the health care side is not mandatory; it's part of a discretionary budget. It goes to Congress. It gets argued. It gets cut. When you analyze the VA health care budget, the actual increase is 2.6 percent, but you have to look at the rate of inflation in the health care sector, which averages 5.6 percent."

The quality of care at the VA has never been better; the problem is that it's not accessible to those who need it. "The VA needs to be able to hire more full-time employees and needs a budget that is not only adequate but arrives on time," says Gaytan. "The delay in approving the budget for the VA in the past three years has prevented the VA from hiring employees to provide vets with care."

DAV's Violante says he's seeing a slew of Iraq vets with head trauma and brain injuries. The VA gives priority to those with the worst injuries, but Korean War and Vietnam War vets are being turned away.

In June 2005, the VA admitted an unexpected shortfall of nearly $1 billion for the 2006 budget. The shortfall announcement resulted in negative press and an embarrassed Bush administration. Before Congress took its August recess, the House and Senate were at odds over how much money was needed to adequately fund the VA. The Senate asked for $1.5 billion, and the House asked for $975 million. The House finally joined the Senate and approved the $1.5 billion supplement.

Veterans' advocates say these problems wouldn't exist if the Bush administration supported mandatory health care funding for vets. "It costs the taxpayer less if vets are cared for by the VA than Medicare or Medicaid, but members of Congress don't seem to get that," says Violante.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., supported a mandatory veterans health care plan during the 2004 election, but the media spent more time on his past military record than his platform. Scott says mandatory funding doesn't have a chance under the current administration.

"Show me a Republican who has voted for or who supports full and mandatory funding for VA health care. They're looking at the VA as a business," he says. "Steve Buyer actually said we should run this like a business. Revenue enhancement? Good lord, it's a government agency, and it's designed to help veterans. What do you mean by revenue enhancement? It's the whole mindset of the current administration."

Tim Walz, a 23-year National Guard veteran running for Congress in Minnesota's upcoming midterm election, plans to make veterans' issues a major part of his platform.

"The veterans of this country have earned three minutes. That's what their service is worth, and they'll only let five of them in the room," he says. "We see them [the Bush administration] call back Congress for Terry Schiavo, but they can't spend more than three minutes on our veterans. At some point, there has to be a tipping point with good, pragmatic Republicans who say, 'This is wrong.' The public is incredibly ill-informed on the issues, and it's so frustrating."

Walz will be in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 8 with a number of Democratic veterans from across the country who are running for House and Senate seats. "If we can use that forum and maybe get CNN and FOX to at least cover these issues, people will listen. These are concrete things that need to change if you're for the war or against it," he says. "You would think this is the one issue they (Republicans) would leave alone. We can go after the poor and educators and old people, but if we start messing with the veterans, that might irritate people. But there's no shame in it. They're incredibly smart at winning elections and poor at governing."

Rose Aguilar is a San Francisco-based journalist who recently returned from a six-month road trip through the " red states ." She is writing a book about her journey.