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Subcommittee Chairman Dent Floor Statement on the FY 2017 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Bill

Washington, May 18, 2016 House Appropriations Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee Chairman Charlie Dent gave the following statement on the House floor today in support of H.R. 4974, the fiscal year 2017 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill:

Mr. Chairman, I yield myself such time as I may consume. 

Today, it is my honor and privilege to bring H.R. 4974, the fiscal year 2017 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies appropriations bill to the House of Representatives for consideration. 

I present this bill alongside my great friend and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee, Sanford Bishop from Georgia, who has been an essential partner along the way.  I greatly appreciate the participation and support of our Committee members, both sides of the aisle, as we considered priorities and funding levels for the important programs in our bill.  We analyzed the budget request, developed questions, and held oversight hearings to get direct feedback from members of all the Services, the Department of Defense leadership, the Secretary of the VA, and the VA Inspector General.  We received over 1,000 requests from members; again, from both sides of the aisle, and gave them full consideration.   The bill is also the product of actively listening to the concerns of our veterans and veteran advocates, service members, spouses / caregivers / military family members, and health care providers both within and outside of the VA over the past year.

As we consider this bill, I can’t proceed further without noting that this Subcommittee has a formidable level of support from the Chair and Ranking Member of the Full Committee.  Thank you, Chairman Rogers and Mrs. Lowey.  Your attention, oversight and genuine care for the military and veterans has been inspiring. 

And, to round out the team, we have some great support from our professional staff:  Maureen Holohan, Sue Quantius, Sarah Young, Tracey Russell, and Matt Washington on the Committee staff, and Sean Snyder, Drew Kent and Heather Smith on my personal staff.  I’d also note Michael Reed and Michael Calcagni with Mr. Bishop’s office.  We couldn’t do it without them.

I’d also like to note the retirement of the senior member of our subcommittee, Sam Farr.  He’s been on this subcommittee since 1999.  In our Full Committee meeting we went into detail about Sam’s accomplishments on this subcommittee, including being the architect of the “Monterey model,” which is now the benchmark for a successful public-private partnership in a community with a base closure.  Sam, your commitment and passion and good humor will all be missed.  All the best to you in your retirement.

H.R. 4974 demonstrates our firm commitment to fully supporting our nation’s veterans and servicemembers.  Our investment of $81.6 billion for Military Construction, VA, and Related Agencies, $1.2 billion over last year’s level, is unprecedented.   The bill addresses issues to help veterans in every part of the country -- every congressional district-- and our troops around the world.

This bill provides comprehensive support for servicemembers, military families, and veterans.  It supports our troops with the facilities and services necessary to maintain readiness and morale at bases here in the states and overseas.  It provides for Defense Department schools and health clinics that take care of military families.  

And the bill funds our veteran healthcare systems to ensure that our promise to care for those who have sacrificed in defense of this great nation continues as those men and women return home.  We owe this to our vets and are committed to sustained oversight so that programs deliver what they promise, and taxpayers are well served by the investments we make.

The bill provides a total of $7.9 billion for military construction projects and family housing, including base and Overseas Contingency Operations funding – an increase of $250 million over the President’s request.

This funding meets DOD’s most critical needs, including priority projects for the Combatant Commanders and funding new mission requirements. It provides $304 million for Military Medical Facilities. It provides $246 million for Department of Defense Education Facilities, for construction or renovation of four schools. It supports our Guard and Reserve through $673 million for facilities in 21 states. It includes $514 million for projects from the Department of Defense Unfunded Priority List, benefitting the most critical projects--as identified by the services--that were not included in the budget request. It fully funds Military Family Housing at $1.3 billion. And it provides $178 million for the NATO Security Investment Program, which is $43 million over last year’s level, to deal with increasing threats and necessary investments overseas.

The legislation includes a total of $176 billion in combined discretionary and mandatory funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Discretionary funding alone for Veterans programs in the bill is $73.5 billion.  Total fiscal year 2017 discretionary funding is $2 billion above fiscal year 2016, which is a 3 percent increase and $1.5 billion below the budget request.  Within that total, VA Medical Care is provided with $64 billion—a 5 percent increase over last year.

The bill funds VA medical services at $52.5 billion.  That includes $850 million that VA came back and asked for this year, on top of the advanced funding provided last year. 

Many members expressed concerns about medical services, and we were able to fully fund the budget request for: Hepatitis C at $1.5 billion; Veteran Homelessness at $1.6 billion; Long-Term Care at $8.6 billion; Caregiver Stipends at $725 million; and the Office of the Inspector General at $160 million.

For Disability Claims, we provide the full request for the Veterans Benefits Administration, which is a $118 million increase over fiscal year 2016, and the full request for the Board of Veterans appeals, which is a $46 million increase.

The bill will enhance transparency and accountability at the VA through further oversight and an increase for the VA Office of Inspector General’s independent audits and investigations.

This legislation also contains $260 million for the modernization of the VA Electronic Health Record and includes language restricting all of the funding until the VA meets milestones and certifies interoperability to meet statutory requirements.   

We continue to focus on major construction oversight- the bill includes language that will hold back 100% of the funding for the largest construction projects until VA contracts for outside Federal management, and we maintain strict restrictions on transfers, use of bid savings, and scope changes.

The bill provides $528 million for major construction projects in Reno, Nevada and Long Beach, California, as well as cemeteries in Florida, New York and Colorado.

We include bill language regarding improved standards for the Suicide Hotline and certification of mental health therapists to expand access for veterans who need their care.

The bill prohibits all performance awards for VA senior executives.  This was in response to multiple member requests to restrict bonuses of various types at VA.  I understand this is controversial, but given the horrendous mismanagement we have seen at VA facilities across the country, we were compelled to send a strong message about accountability.  The prohibition we included has passed as a floor amendment several years in a row. 

We have received some unfounded criticism from the Administration for the actions we took.  The Administration may not be happy with any change to its budget proposal—but this bill provides very generous funding that adheres to the law and our responsibility to practice fiscal responsibility.  Overall, with this bill and the funds that were provided in advance last year, for FY 2017, the VA will have available 98 percent of what it asked for.  98 percent.  I would wager that there won’t be another Department in that enviable position.  This shows the level of commitment we have to our veterans and their families.  So despite any criticism, we should all be proud of this bill and what we have done in it. 

Let me tell you, I can say with absolute certainty—VA’s problems stem from poor management, not too little money.  We continue to push for better management and the Secretary has replaced most of the senior managers at headquarters and in the field.  Many VA employees are committed to the veteran, are talented, and work very hard.  I have met these folks and appreciate each of them.  But the “corrosive culture” that has been cited at VA remains the root of VA’s problem.

I want to discuss the Choice Act, or VACAA, a bit.  I, and probably all of you, fully support the Choice Act and want veterans to have access to quality healthcare at a convenient location for them.  The Choice Act was so popular that it brought a lot of demand to VA, and VA has been spending both Choice Act funds and discretionary funds to meet the increased demand.  The Choice Act expires at the end of fiscal year 2017, and its funding is being depleted sooner than that.  Some of the Choice programs are already out of money, and others will be out of money halfway through the year.  For example, the Choice Act hires of medical professionals to cut the backlog of appointments runs out of funds to pay those people halfway through the year.  We—that is, discretionary appropriations--are picking up a $600 million tab to pay them through the end of FY 17.  It is the right thing to do, but not what we planned for. 

There will be unprecedented and massive demands on the discretionary side to continue programs started with a $15 billion slug of emergency funding.  That’s a huge issue for FY 2018.  Right now, it is incumbent on Congress all to reform VA healthcare with a responsible plan that meets the needs of veterans in a sustainable manner, and I hope we take that very seriously.

We fund the American Battle Monuments Commission, the Armed Forces Retirement Home, Arlington National Cemetery, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans at the requested funding levels, which total $241 million.  

In closing, this is a very solid, bipartisan bill that is focused on the needs of servicemembers, veterans and all their families.  We are $1.8 billion over the fiscal year 2016 level; more than a 2 percent increase.  We have provided for our military and veterans to the very best level we can in a manner that is fiscally responsible.  Did we fund every last dime requested?  No.

Not every idea has merit—not every project is mission critical.  We did not fund some projects, we cut some requested increases, and we rescinded funds.  These were fair decisions and part of our responsibility as appropriators. 

We will do a lot of good with this bill—it is fair, it is balanced, and it is generous.  On behalf of our service members, military families, and veterans, I urge your support of this legislation.  Let’s take care of those who have sacrificed for our country.

I reserve the balance of my time. 

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