House panel OKs $191.7B military construction bill

Plan includes $50.6 billion in advanced fiscal 2012 funding for key VA health care programs.

Working with its usual bipartisan cooperation, the House Military Construction-Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee approved a $191.7 billion fiscal 2011 spending bill Wednesday that includes $63.8 billion in mandatory funding for veterans' benefits, $50.6 billion in advanced fiscal 2012 funding for key VA health care programs and $1.3 billion in "emergency" overseas construction funding in support of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The $57 billion in fiscal 2011 VA discretionary funding essentially matches the administration's request and is $13.6 billion above the current level, the only significant increase in the measure. The advanced funding for fiscal 2012 is continuing an initiative started last year to provide security to critical veterans health care services.

The $18.7 billion for military construction, family house and Base Realignment and Closure activities is down $4.9 billion from current funding, a reflection of the phase out of the 2005 BRAC spending.

The cemetery account was increased by $1.5 million to allow the Army to hire employees and implement its planned automated management system, a response to the Army inspector general's finding of widespread discrepancies in the records of graves in Arlington National Cemetery.

Military Construction-Veterans Affairs Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, and ranking member Rep. Zack Wamp, R-Tenn., expressed their concern about problems in the nation's most important military cemetery but praised the swift and dramatic response by Army Secretary John McHugh, a former Republican House member.

The bill includes language requiring McHugh to report on the progress of implementing the new management system.

The subcommittee accepted six amendments by voice votes, including one by Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., requiring the report to include whether the cemetery has the necessary resources and to establish benchmarks for implementing the management system.

Another amendment by Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., would require the Veterans Affairs Department to consider increasing the allowance to families to cover expenses of burying a veteran, which has not been changed since 1973.

An amendment by Wamp would increase funding for the VA inspector general by $6 million, and one by Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., would give VA an additional $14 million to prevent a cut of 306 employees handling claims for payment under the new GI Bill for education, which the administration had proposed. An amendment by Edwards would add $15 million to VA's healthcare facilities construction.

The three funding amendments would be paid for by taking money from a VA information technology program, which has been cancelled.

Despite the overall bipartisan harmony, Wamp complained in a written statement that the Appropriations Committee has not acted on the requested Overseas Contingency Operations emergency appropriations for Iraq and Afghanistan. And he complained orally that the majority had no plans to hold a full committee mark up of this measure or any of the other appropriations.