Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz Statement at Full Committee Markup of FY 2021 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Funding Bill
WASHINGTON — Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Chair of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, delivered the following remarks at the Appropriations Committee's markup of the fiscal year 2021 Military Construction-Veterans Affairs bill:
The bill before us demonstrates our commitment to our servicemembers and their families and to our Veterans. In producing this bill, we strove to take into account the requests and feedback that all of you, as well as our colleagues off the Committee, have provided. We have worked closely with your staff to address any issues and to produce a bill that reflects the priorities of this Committee and all Members in this House.
While our hearing schedule this year ended prematurely due to the pandemic, we still held several hearings to tackle many of the issues that agencies in this bill struggle with and that have faced neglect for too long.
On the Milcon side, the subcommittee held a hearing with Department of Defense officials, private company representatives and GAO to focus on the substandard conditions found in privatized housing across the branches of our military. We also held a hearing on PFAS/PFOA contamination and the impact of its exposure on servicemembers.
On the VA side, in addition to our virtual briefing with the VA Secretary, we held an oversight hearing on VA’s Electronic Health Record Modernization to evoke greater transparency in its implementation, and we also held a briefing with VA Secretary and Dr. Stone on the VA COVID-19 crisis response.
These deeper dives allowed us all to get a better sense of the needs that exist, and I think these hearings helped us produce a better piece of legislation. The bill makes needed investments in the programs that improve our military readiness and provides the benefits and medical care that our Veterans have earned due to their service to our Nation.
Specifically, the FY 2021 Committee recommendation provides $115.5 billion in total discretionary funding, which includes $350 million for Overseas Contingency Operations and $12.5 billion in emergency funding to address the sharply rising cost of veterans’ medical care. This is a $5.1 billion increase above the FY 2020 enacted funding level and $2.3 billion above the FY 2021 budget request.
The bill provides $10.1 billion for Military Construction, rejecting the President’s proposed cut of $3.6 billion below the current level for critical infrastructure needs on military installations. This includes $439.5 million for the Energy Resilience and Conservation Investment Program, which is $297 million above the request.
$2.4 billion is provided for unfunded priorities that were approved by the DOD Comptroller. These projects can be executed during FY 2021.The total also provides $1.54 billion for Family Housing Construction, $135 million above the budget request. The additional resources are for housing support costs associated with inadequate conditions at multiple military installations.
An additional $280 million above the budget request is provided for the BRAC account. Of the additional funds provided, $80 million is for continued efforts to accelerate BRAC cleanup and $200 million is for remediation of PFAS/PFOA.
The bill also includes a new provision to prohibit military construction projects on installations named for confederate officers, who led and waged armed rebellion against the United States, until a process has been initiated to replace the name of those installations. No servicemember should live or train on a base named for a person who betrayed America’s pursuit of a more perfect union. Fighting your own countrymen in the name of continuing the enslavement of other human beings is not an act that should be honored, and it’s beyond time for change at those military bases that do honor such individuals with their namesake.
A total of $240.2 billion, including mandatory spending, is provided for the FY 2021 programs of the Department of Veterans Affairs, of which $104.8 billion is discretionary funding. This amount represents an increase of $12.3 billion more than the FY 2020 enacted level.
We have finally achieved consensus with the Senate that the cost of VA healthcare is growing exponentially and cannot remain within the budget caps. For that reason, the $12.5 billion within the total is designated as emergency funding to adequately fund VA health care.
We have been heading toward a fiscal cliff due to the Mission Act and this is a badly needed fix that will provide essential relief. The bill includes $90 billion for VA medical care – fully funding the budget request and providing for approximately 7.2 million patients to be treated in fiscal year 2021. Within this total, funding includes: $661 million for gender-specific care for women; $1.9 billion for homeless assistance programs; $504 million for opioid abuse treatment and prevention; $84 million for whole health initiatives; and $300 million in rural health initiatives.
The bill provides $10.3 billion in mental healthcare services, which is $40 million above the request and $865 million above the enacted level. This includes $313 million for suicide prevention outreach activities.
In addition, this funding will support a number of initiatives to remove barriers to mental healthcare and reduce the stigma of seeking treatment, as well as putting an emphasis on PTSD research and treatment, firearm safety for veterans, and supporting the Veterans Crisis Line.
Medical and Prosthetic Research is funded at $840 million, which is $40 million above the FY 2020 enacted level and $53 million above the budget request.
Other areas of interest include robust oversight of the EHRM implementation, progress in construction of VA facilities, ensuring access and care for veterans in rural and underserved areas including telehealth, and improving treatment of conditions like rare cancers and pressure ulcers.
Finally, the bill provides an increase of 8 percent over the budget request for the four Related Agencies to maintain service levels and invest in needed maintenance and improvements: the American Battle Monuments Commission, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, Arlington National Cemetery, and the Armed Forces Retirement Home.
It will come as no surprise that this bill does not allow the president to bypass congressional intent and divert vital military construction funding from previously approved national security projects in support of a border wall. Let’s not allow presidential bigotry and xenophobia take priority over American lives, our servicemembers or our national security. Whether we agree or disagree on the need for a wall or whether or not there is a crisis at the border, I hope this Committee can agree that funds for the wall should not be stolen from previously approved vital military construction projects that are to a dollar, a higher priority than any wall.
As I have said repeatedly, Military construction dollars should be used only for the purpose they are provided, which is to support the Department of Defense’s mission, servicemembers, and their families.
It is important to point out that the Milcon budget only represents 3 percent of total Defense funds, so all dollars are valuable. We can debate the merits of a border wall but let’s reserve that for consideration during the Homeland Security markup.
With that, I want to thank all of our Members for their engagement during the process of drafting this legislation, particularly our subcommittee Members. We have worked so well together, and this bill does right by our servicemembers and Veterans as a result.
I would like to thank my partner, Judge Carter, for his tireless work on these issues and importantly, for his friendship. I am proud to have you as our Ranking Member on this Subcommittee. I also must express my gratitude to the Chairwoman of the Full Committee, Mrs. Lowey, for her tremendous leadership and stewardship of this Committee, as well as the Full Committee’s distinguished Ranking Member Ms. Granger.
Finally, thank you to our staff. Their expertise and commitment to our servicemembers and our Veterans is evident every day.
- Clerk – Lisa Molyneux
- Sarah Young
- Jenny Hollrah
- Nicole Cohen
- Keihysha Cenord
- Lauren Wolman – my personal staff
- Betsy Bina – Minority Clerk
- Grady Bourn – Judge Carter’s personal staff
- Lara Spader – Judge Carter’s personal staff