Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz Statement at Subcommittee Markup of FY 2021 Military Construction-Veterans Affairs Funding Bill

2020-07-06 20:00

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Chair of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, delivered the following remarks at the Subcommittee's markup of its fiscal year 2021 bill:

The bill before us today demonstrates our commitment to our servicemembers and their families and to our Veterans. We can all be proud of the work we did to produce this bill, which takes into account the requests and feedback that all of you, and our colleagues on and off the Committee, have provided. Each of you have received a card with your top priorities that were incorporated into the bill and report.

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.

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 annual budget hearing with the Secretary, we also held an oversight hearing on VA’s Electronic Health Record Modernization in order to evoke greater transparency in the implementation process. We also held a hearing with the VA Secretary and Dr. Stone on the VA response to the COVID-19 crisis.

I am proud that the bill before us makes needed investments in the programs that improve our military readiness and provides the benefits and medical care that our Veterans have earned because of their service to our Nation.

Specifically, the FY 2021 Committee recommendation provides $115.5 billion, 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 2.3 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 $1.3 billion for Family Housing Construction, including $135 million for housing support costs. An additional $200 million is provided for PFAS/PFOA cleanup.

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.

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.

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 homelessness programs; $504 million for opioid abuse treatment and prevention; $84 million for whole health; $300 million in rural health initiatives; and $10.3 billion in mental healthcare services, including $313 for suicide prevention outreach.

Other areas of interest include robust oversight of the EHRM implementation, boosting investment in medical and prosthetic research, 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.

As a surprise to no one, this bill does not fund a border wall, nor allow the president to bypass congressional intent and divert valuable military construction funding from previously approved national security projects. 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.

With that, I want to thank all our Subcommittee Members for their engagement while drafting this legislation. I also want 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 want to thank Chairwoman Lowey and Ranking Member Granger for their support for the Subcommittee’s work. This is a good bill that will help our servicemembers, their families, and our Veterans, and I urge all of my colleagues to join me in advancing this forward. 

Before I turn to Judge Carter for his opening statement, I want to express my appreciation to members of this subcommittee who plan to leave Congress at the end of the year. 

Congresswoman Roby, you have been a tireless advocate for your local VA, and it set a high bar for every other one. The passion you bring, day in day out, to demand responsiveness from VA Headquarters and particularly, your insistence that Central Alabama VA address their challenges, is an inspiration.

Congressman Hurd, you have been steadfast in your support and advocacy for Joint Base San Antonio. Your commitment to the military, its training and schools, specifically the Air Force, has been critical.  We will miss the many positive contributions you have made to this subcommittee.

Chairwoman Lowey, your leadership and determination to target dedicated health care services for women veterans has been inspiring. And no one has pushed as hard for greater investment in VA Medical Research. Your support and dedication to meet the needs of our servicemembers and their families during active duty, and afterward, set a new standard. Madame Chairwoman, you will truly be missed.

I also want to thank staff who have worked hard to prepare this bill. I want to thank Betsey Bina, the Minority Clerk and Grady Bourn and Lara Spader of Judge Carter’s personal staff. I also want to thank the MilCon VA subcommittee staff including clerk Lisa Molyneux, Sarah Young, Jennifer Hollrah, Nicole Cohen, and Keihysha Cenord; and Lauren Wolman on my personal staff.

116th Congress