It was the kind of ceremony presidents love.
Spring weather was lovely in the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday as President Trump was surrounded by supporters at a signing ceremony for the Mission Act, a measure designed to improve health care for veterans.
“This is a very big day,” Trump said. “Choice. We’ve been looking for choice for a long time, and today is the day. So, it’s very important. Very happy.”
Very happy, but not totally satisfied.
Not long after the veterans and politicians who had worked to secure a bipartisan agreement left the White House, Trump said he didn’t like portions of the law he had been very happy to sign. To complicate matters, the administration separately sent Congress a memo outlining objections to proposed funding measures for the new program. Those objections could lead the Department of Veterans Affairs to “cannibalize itself,” a ranking Democrat predicted.
The Mission Act consolidates seven programs allowing vets to obtain private or “community” health care coordinated by VA, creates an integrated network for the department and community care, provides hiring incentives for health professionals, expands an assistance program for caregivers of veterans and creates an infrastructure commission on modernizing VA facilities.
“These are sweeping, historic changes,” Trump said in the Rose Garden. “There’s never been anything like this in the history of the VA — never been anything close — and we will not rest until the job is fully done.”
But how the job gets done is now open to question because of the signing statement Trump issued after his Rose Garden statement and the administration’s opposition to certain funding measures. Previous presidents also issued signing statements to oppose portions of legislation they had signed into law. It can be a controversial action if the signing statement, like Trump’s, essentially says the president will not follow the law as passed by Congress.
“The law’s expectations are pretty clear, particularly for the infrastructure review. The White House must not ignore Congress’s intent in passing the VA MISSION Act,” Carl Blake, executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, said by email. “We will be watching very closely to ensure the Administration follows through on the intent of the law.”
Trump’s statement said that three provisions infringe upon his presidential authority:
- One section “purports to require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (the “Secretary”) to obtain the approval of the chairmen of two congressional committees before expending more than $50 million of appropriated funds in a fiscal year on certain pilot programs. Under the separation of powers, the Congress may not make the approval of members of Congress a precondition to the execution of the law.”
- Another section “would require the President to consult with members of Congress on the appointment of the members to the Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission.” Trump said he expects to confer with Congress, “but a requirement to consult with the Congress in executive decision-making violates the separation of powers, including where the Congress has vested the President alone or a department head with authority to make appointments. I will accordingly treat this provision as hortatory but not mandatory.”
- A third section “purports to require all Federal agencies to make available to the Commission any information it considers necessary to perform its duties.” Trump reserved the right “to withhold information that could impair foreign relations, national security, the deliberative processes of the executive branch, or the performance of the President’s constitutional duties.”
What Trump considers “hortatory but not mandatory,” Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, sees as a White House effort to thwart the legislative branch.
“I am deeply concerned by President Trump’s signing statement,” he told the Federal Insider, “however I do not find it surprising that before the ink was even dry on the VA Mission Act President Trump took steps to limit Congressional oversight of the bill’s implementation.”
Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees, Rep. Phil Roe (Tenn.) and Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.), declined to respond to Trump’s statement.
Trump’s signing statement left veterans’ service organizations concerned. American Legion spokesman Joe Plenzler was polite but direct.
“The American Legion worked very hard on this legislation with the administration and with Congress,” he said. “We were very pleased that the president signed it, and we look forward to implementing every piece of this legislation as discussed and negotiated.”
Garry Augustine, who heads the Washington headquarters of Disabled American Veterans, doesn’t want to prejudge what the administration will do but says the signing statement gives him pause. “Right now, I don’t know if it’s posturing or what,” he said. “I think that there are some issues that we thought were worked out, but now we have to see what develops.”
The administration’s memo, previously reported by the Military Times, objects to a Senate proposal that would lift discretionary spending caps for Mission Act programs, arguing that that “would allow for virtually unlimited increases in spending for the new community care program with no budget enforcement for the new program.”
“As it stands, current budget caps will not allow for this level of spending to occur without requiring deep cuts to existing VA programs,” he said. “This means current programs investing in VA infrastructure, direct patient care, suicide prevention, medical research, job training and many more vital veterans programs could face cuts in funding in order to pay for care in the community under this new plan, something the Veteran Service Organizations have warned against. This paints a clear picture of a VA forced to cannibalize itself in order to pay for care in the private sector. Unfortunately, multiple amendments offered by my fellow House Democrats and me to fix these funding issues were voted down by Republicans.”
If Walz is right and the budget caps remain, the Mission Act might not be the victory folks celebrated in the Rose Garden.