House Panel Approves Spending Surge to Fix and Upgrade VA Buildings
Funding would preempt a commission that will determine what VA's footprint should look like going forward.
A House committee on Monday evening passed a measure to spend $18 billion on fixing or replacing dated medical facilities and boosting staffing at the Veterans Affairs Department, a key piece of President Biden’s agenda for the agency.
The House Veterans' Affairs Committee approved the spending as part of a budget resolution that Democrats ultimately plan to pass using a special procedure called reconciliation. Republicans on the panel voted against the proposal, saying the spending was either premature or unnecessary, and lawmakers should instead wait until an already established commission reports its findings on VA’s needs.
The legislation would provide $15.2 billion for VA’s capital investment portfolio, boosting maintenance for dilapidated facilities around the country. In some cases, VA would build new medical centers from scratch. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who chairs the committee, said current VA buildings are designed to serve veterans who fought in World War I and World War II.
“That is unacceptable,” Takano said.
The measure would provide nearly $2 billion for VA to lease new facilities, about half a billion dollars for VA to revamp underutilized spaces and $375 million to boost clinical staffing through an increase in residency positions.
Republicans on the committee, who introduced a slew of unsuccessful amendments aiming to lower or redirect spending at VA, said Congress should instead await results from the already established Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission. Created by the 2018 VA Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks (MISSION) Act, the panel will oversee a process similar to the base realignment and closure process at the Defense Department. There is no requirement, however, for the VA commission to recommend consolidations and Biden has blown past a deadline to pick people to serve on the commission.
Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., the committee’s ranking member, said VA has already spent three years collecting data to present to the commission. Bost added VA has received $40 billion through COVID-19 relief packages, some of which it has not yet spent. He called the new spending at VA unnecessary and “a distraction” from Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal.
Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich., said it would be wasteful to spend money on fixing a facility that the Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission may soon recommend for closure anyway, adding Democrats were taking a “ready, fire, aim” approach.
Biden's VA officials have made clear they intend to take a growth-oriented approach with the asset commission, suggesting the $18 billion in infrastructure spending would merely be a "down payment" on the work needed to expand health care access to veterans.
Early next year, VA Secretary Denis McDonough will submit recommendations on the “modernization and realignment” of department facilities to the commission made up of Biden’s nominees. The commission will then have a year to review that plan, conduct its own hearings and investigations, make its own proposals and send them to the White House. Biden can then reject the plan or sign off on it and send it to Congress. Similar to previous Base Realignment and Closure efforts at the Defense Department, Congress will have to accept all of the recommendations or none of them. Lawmakers must proactively vote down the proposals to void them, however, as inaction would allow them to take effect.
Through the reconciliation process, Democrats can pass the VA and other spending in the House and Senate without any Republican support. The Biden administration is also pushing to include $10 billion as part of the package that would go into a fund to pay for infrastructure upgrades to buildings across the rest of the federal government. The package is also slated to include funding to electrify the federal fleet and hire more staff at the Internal Revenue Service. Democratic leadership has set an overall spending level at $3.5 trillion for the bill, but some centrist members of its caucus are pushing for a lower figure.