This year's federal budget process has entailed high drama. The Congress, listening carefully to the American people, undertook a serios effort to reduce federal spending. Action in the Senate on the Veterans' Administration budget provided a most interesting case study. As chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, I was in a position not only to observe theroles being played out in this drama, but to participate fully in it as it unfolded.
The first stage was for each authorizing committee to examine in detail the president's proposals. A great many items required the attention of the new president, and the Reagan administration's budget recommendations for the Veterans' Administration were not available to me until three days before the deadline for committee budget reports. As a result, the Veterans' Affairs Committee was not able to responsibly study the president's specifice proposals concerning the VA budget.
The committee was confident that the president's overall target figure could be achieved -- with some "belt tightening." We never lost sight, however, of our primary responsibility to preserve essential services to veterans. With that in mind, the committee acted to restore $109 million for health care, $47 million for continued operation of the VA's regional offices and $25 million to continue the Vietnam veterans' "storefront" counseling centers. At the same time, the committee committed itself to finding $324 million in unspecified savings in the effort to support the president's economic recovery package.
A vigorous jpolitical struggle developed in which the minorityparty in the Senate offered amendment after amendment intended to increase President Reagan's budget proposal in the area of veterans' benefits as well as in many other areas. The endeavor was to paint the majoirty party as "heartless," uncaring and unfeeling with respect to its obligation to the nation's veterans and other constituent groups, knowing all the while that their amendments were jprincipally intended to line up the ducks for the next election. Had I been a member of the minority, I would have done the same! The majority resisted these efforts, because it was quite evident that any such dilution of the president's economic package could seriously endanger the ultimate goal of achieving economic stability in this decade.
Even as this process was unfolding on the floor of the Senate, a compromise was being worked out between a bipartisan group in the House and the administration. Even though the House compromise budget contained $300 million more for veterans than was set forth in the version approved earlier by the Senate, and even though the president's endorsement of the House compromise ensured its passage, we continue to hear shrieks from various quarters that Congress is about to turn its back on America's veterans. It's just not so.
The professional veterans' organizations are in business to make sure that veterans receive at least their fair share of the federal budget. Some of these organizations continued to "pump up" their membership against the administration's proposals, while fully recognizing that both houses of Congress had rejected the supposedly detrimental aspects of the administration proposal and had restored the various cuts that were most important to veterans. Unfortunately, many veterans still seem to have the preception that the administration's budget will be accepted without any further modification.
I clearly recognize the legitimate role of these organizations. They are activists -- they have a job to do and they do it well. I respect them for the role that they play -- and they play hardball.
As the smoke clears, we need to look carefully at what will actually happen. Spending for veterans will increase by $1.7 billion over spending in the present fiscal year. This is a 7.6 percent increase. Admittedly, the new total of nearly $24 billion represents a $400 million decrease from the original funding proposals, but such funding constraints will not significantly affect essential veterans' programs. We have therefore remained faithful to the national to the national desire for budgetary restraint while at the same time keeping faith nwith our obligations to veterans.
This year's veterans' budget process domonstrated how well our political system can work. While emotions ran high, the end result should be a strengthened sense of unity created by the assurance that all constituent groups involved participated fully in the debate. Most of the nation's Republicans, Democrats and veterans supported the final result.
Most heartening to me is the knowledge that the great majority of veterans are willing to help join the national effort to resolve our nation's economic woes. They know we have tried other nostrums and placebos as fast as they could be thrown off the back of the medicine wagon -- and none has worked. Responsible, reasonable veterans believe, as I do, that the greatest benefit to them and to all Americans would be the restoration of a vigorous economy.