As Marylanders celebrate Memorial Day with ceremonies, parades, barbecues or other festivities, we owe it to ourselves to also remember the reason why this is a national holiday: It's a day to honor our fallen heroes — all those who made the ultimate sacrifice to defend our nation and preserve our freedom.
We should also remember that the families of those we lost — and those who fought and lived, many of whom suffered debilitating, lifelong injuries as a result — depend on our government fulfilling its social compact with all who serve: that in exchange for their sacrifice, a grateful nation will help them recover and lead productive, fulfilling lives.
Unfortunately, in recent years, that social compact has been frayed, as veterans and the survivors of the fallen have found themselves held hostage to partisan gridlock in Congress.
Over the past quarter-century, veterans appropriations bills have been passed on schedule only three times. For the other 22 years, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has had to wait days, weeks and often months before knowing what its funding would be.
This has harsh, real-world impacts on the lives of veterans and family members. The processing of disability, pension and survivor benefits has been delayed, leading to the unacceptable backlog in disability claims. Needed improvements in information technology, medical and prosthetic research, and facilities construction and maintenance have been postponed or canceled entirely. Even cemetery administration has been undermined.
This toxic cycle of gridlock, delay and hardship reached its nadir last fall during the government shutdown. Work stopped on more than 250,000 disability claims awaiting appeals, research projects were threatened, and burials at national cemeteries were scaled back.
As chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, knows all too well how hard the tasks are of passing legislation to fund government agencies on time. Since taking over the committee in December 2012, veterans appropriations bills for fiscal years 2013 and 2014 passed 156 days late and 108 days late, respectively.
At the same time, Senator Mikulski has been outspoken in support of our veterans: "Their service is a tremendous sacrifice and great risk. These are ordinary men and women called on to act in an extraordinary way. All Americans owe them a debt of gratitude," she has said.
Senator Mikulski has the power to make that "debt of gratitude" more than mere words but something tangible as well. All she has to do is lend her support to the Putting Veterans Funding First Act.
This bipartisan bill would free veterans from partisan gridlock by providing for advance appropriations for all VA functions. Congress could then pass VA appropriations bills 12 months before the advent of each fiscal year.
This is no radical plan. It merely expands the advance appropriations process that has been in place for VA medical care since 2009. That's why even the government shutdown did not prevent veterans from receiving the health care they need. There is simply no good reason why all other VA functions should not be subject to advance appropriations, too.
The Putting Veterans Funding First Act has already passed the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committees with overwhelming bipartisan support. It is also backed by the Senate and House Budget Committee chairs, as well as by Maryland's Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. Yet the leadership of each chamber has yet to allow the bill to reach the floor for a vote. If there was ever a time to break this logjam and let this popular, urgently-needed legislation move forward, surely it is this Memorial Day.
While the harm veterans have suffered from budget gridlock may be more an accidental byproduct of political dysfunction rather than intentional hurt, that doesn't excuse those responsible. Rather, it makes it incumbent on powerful legislators like Senator Mikulski to fix the mess and embrace real solutions like the Putting Veterans Funding First Act.
With almost 450,000 veterans in Maryland, and with the VA system overloaded between the influx of those returning from battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus the aging of Vietnam-era veterans, the time for action is now. All Marylanders committed to doing right by America's heroes should take five minutes when business resumes on Tuesday to call Senator Mikulski at (202) 224-4654, and urge her to pass the Putting Veterans Funding First Act.
Lamarr Couser is Maryland Commander of Disabled American Veterans; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Herbert S. Mason is Maryland Commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Gary B. Vogt is Maryland Commander of The American Legion.
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