Negotiations over how much money to inject into the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs grew more tense on Thursday as the Democrats and Republicans leading the talks essentially rejected each other’s offers.
Republicans have shown reluctance to pump more cash into an agency that has received virtually everything it asked for in recent years but nonetheless found itself mired in problems, including a record-keeping scandal, a longstanding backlog of disability claims and extensive treatment delays nationwide. GOP lawmakers say they want assurances that any additional funding would be used effectively.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) criticized the VA at a hearing on Thursday for submitting a mere two-page explanation for a request for $17.6 billion to help solve the agency’s problems over the next three years. (Scroll down to view the document.)
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said during his opening remarks that the VA request is large, but that $17 billion would be “a moderate percentage increase in annual expenditures.” When pressed about the two-page outline, he said: “I understand your point. The committee needs additional information.”
As for the details of the VA request, the agency has asked for $8.2 billion to hire more medical staff, $1.2 billion for IT enhancements, $6 billion for construction projects, $400 million for more staff to deal with the agency’s backlog of benefits claims, and about $1.5 billion for other programs.
Republicans have expressed strong reservations about approving the VA proposal without a more-detailed explanation for why the money is needed and how it would be used. They note that the agency has a history of failed projects that cost taxpayers millions or billions of dollars.
“Our veterans deserve the best, but throwing money at the department — into a system that has never been denied a dime — will not automatically fix the perverse culture that has encompassed the department,” Miller said. “VA can no longer consider itself the sacred cow that is not subject to rules of good government and ethical behavior.”
At the hearing, Gibson acknowledged that there have been problems with the VA’s previous funding requests, including a failure to deliver on a multibillion-dollar plan to update the health network’s scheduling technology. But he said the VA has established a new accountability system for such projects.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described socialist democrat, has pressed hard for Congress to quickly approve additional VA funding. He noted in a statement on Thursday that many of the nation’s most prominent veterans groups backed the agency’s $17.6-billion request in a letter this week.
“The major veterans’ organizations have been clear about the needs of the VA,” Sanders said. “It is time for the House to pay attention.”
Separate from the VA’s request, the House has approved a $44 billion measure to help address the VA’s problems, and the Senate has passed a separate bill for $35 billion. Sanders on Thursday proposed what he described as “compromise legislation” that would cost $25 billion.
Miller said he offered to provide $10 billion in emergency funding on Thursday at a conference committee meeting, but that he wanted any additional funding to go through the normal appropriations process in Congress. Only one Democratic lawmaker attended the discussion, according to a Politico report.
Sanders, who never agreed to the meeting, described Miller’s offer as a “take it or leave it” approach. “Any sixth-grader in a school of the United States understands: This is not negotiation,” he said.
Miller responded in a statement that reaching a compromise will be impossible if Democrats don’t show up for conference committee meetings. “I am prepared keep negotiating for as long as it takes to reach a deal, and I hope Senate Democrats will work with me to address VA’s delays in care and accountability crises,” he said.