The omnibus appropriations bill approved by Congress and signed last month by the president finally closed the book on federal budgeting for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, more than two months late and only after another threat of a government shutdown. Lost in most of the media coverage of this massive legislation is a very significant victory for millions of veterans that will prevent this very type of political gridlock from threatening veterans' benefits during any future budget battles or government shutdowns.
This short but consequential legislative provision is the culmination of a long legislative road sparked by the last government shutdown. In October of 2013 as Congress and the administration once again failed to complete the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) budget on time, veterans and their families came within days of not receiving their disability, pension, education and survivor benefit payments. Many veterans rely on these VA checks to make ends meet. Moved by the plight of veterans forced to worry how they would pay their bills, DAV (Disabled American Veterans) and a coalition of other leading veterans organizations launched a campaign to pass new legislation ensuring that Congress will provide full funding for all mandatory veterans benefits up to a year in advance. Advance appropriations, as it is known, will guarantee that the VA has sufficient resources in place to guarantee benefit checks go out the door on time, every month and every year.
Ironically, the same broken process that has delayed and jeopardized veterans' benefits for 23 of the past 26 years became the very catalyst that spurred this landmark change in federal budgeting. With enactment of the omnibus spending bill, Congress has effectively acted to protect veterans from Congress and all the partisan politics that have regularly stalled federal budget agreements.
This past spring, on this very page of The Sun, the Maryland State Commander of DAV, along with the state commanders of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, called upon Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, to use her power as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee to get this legislation enacted. It appears she was paying attention. In the midst of the partisan wrangling surrounding the omnibus appropriations bill, Senator Mikulski spearheaded a successful effort to include the advance appropriations provision as part of the omnibus spending bill agreement she was negotiating with her Senate and House counterparts. With DAV and other veterans service organizations securing support from key leaders on the Senate and House Veterans' Affairs committees, and with assistance from the bipartisan supporters of advance appropriations, particularly Congressman Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican and head of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, this provision was ultimately adopted into the omnibus legislation.
As a result, Congress is now authorized to fully fund mandatory veterans benefits — such as disability compensation, low-income pension, widowers' support and GI Bill education benefits — up to a full year in advance. This law will help to ensure that no amount of partisan gridlock, or even a government shutdown, will again deny veterans the benefits they and their families need and were promised — benefits earned through service and sacrifice. Millions of veterans will no longer have to worry whether congressional gridlock will threaten their financial ability to keep the lights on or food on the table. Thanks to this important, if unheralded, legislative victory, past, present and future members of our armed forces will no longer be used as political pawns during unrelated budget showdowns. Even in an increasingly partisan and political environment in Washington, D.C., our nation will be able to fulfill at least this one promise to the men and women who served.
Garry J. Augustine, a Vietnam-era combat-wounded Army veteran and Maryland resident, is executive director of DAV's Washington Headquarters. His email is GAugustine@davmail.org.