Congress Wants to Shield Veterans From Another Government Shutdown

By Jordain Carney

March 14, 2014

During the last government shutdown, lawmakers feared veterans were days away from not receiving their disability checks.

Hoping to prevent a similar predicament, members of a House committee pressed Thursday for full funding for the Veterans Affairs Department's discretionary budget a year ahead of schedule.

Currently, only the department's health care services are funded a year in advance.

"This committee is again trying to look down the road and provide advanced appropriations authority for the remaining 14 percent of the Department of Veterans Affairs' discretionary budget," said Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, and the ranking member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, at a hearing about the department's budget request.

The Veterans Affairs Department is asking for $164 billion for its total 2015 fiscal year budget, a 6.5 percent increase over the current fiscal year.

Members on both sides of the aisle and multiple outside groups back giving advanced appropriations to the department. Proponents argue that it would give the department and veterans greater certainty, particularly in regard to making benefits payments during a government shutdown.

But efforts to get advance funding for the rest of VA's budget have stalled. Michaud and committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., introduced the Putting Veterans Funding First Act, which passed the House Veterans Committee but has languished before the full body.

A similar push was included in Sen. Bernie Sanders's wide-ranging veterans legislation, but that bill failed to pass a procedural vote, and the bill is essentially on hold as the Vermont independent tries to garner more Republican support.

During Thursday's hearing, Florida Democrat Rep. Corrine Brown backed giving the department full advance funding and asked Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to weigh in.

Although Shinseki didn't reject the idea, he stressed that advance appropriations wouldn't let the department avoid all of its problems if the government shuts down again.

"We still have to go to the Social Security agency to validate other disabilities payments. We have to go IRS to validate threshold income levels," Shinseki said. "...This is a bigger discussion in some aspects than just the VA budget."

Instead, Shinseki reiterated a familiar Obama administration talking point: "What would be most helpful to VA, [is] for … the federal government to get a budget every year."

By Jordain Carney

March 14, 2014