Sunday, June 17, 2012
Congress and Veterans
Dona: Last Wednesday, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing on proposed legislation. Senator Patty Murray is the Committe Chair, Senator Richard Burr is the Ranking Member. C.I. and Kat attended and reported on the hearing in "Iraq snapshot," "Camp Lejeune" and "Iraq snapshot." The hearing can be streamed at the Committee's hearing page. This was a really intense hearing with a great deal to cover.
Kat: It was.
Dona: So you two covered Camp Lejeune which is a toxic dump that's left hundreds of veterans and their families at risk. And you covered burn pits, the GI education bill, unemployment and possibly something I've missed. What's the one thing you would have covered if you'd had more time?
Kat: I don't know. C.I., the profit, non-profit.
C.I.: That was probably the most intense moment of the hearing.
Dona: Then let's start there. Profit, non-profit? What we are talking about? Educational institutions?
Kat: Correct. There's a concern that for-profit institutions are taking money from veterans -- using their benefits -- and then, after it's all used, up, the veterans has nothing they can apply to the job market.
Dona: And that sounds like a fair concern but I know C.I.'s written of this before. Back when the GI Bill was being proposed, in fact.
C.I.: Right. Back when the Congress was first considering the Post 9/11 G.I. Education Bill, the issue did come up. My opinion is let the veteran determine it. I offered as an example that it was the earlier GI Bill that gave the world Steve McQueen. He attended The Actors Studio on the GI Bill. Now if you'd given Congress the says so on Lee Strasberg's school, it might not have been allowed because The Method was ridiculed by many at the time. But it's where Steve McQueen honed his acting chops. To me, that's a success story. Are there failure stories? I'm sure there are and, as with most stories, I'm sure they outweigh the success stories. But I wouldn't want to be in the position of asking the government to allow this or that.
Dona: So what's the answer?
C.I.: Congress hopes the answer may be in S.2179, the Military and Veterans Educational Reform Act of 2012. Senator Jim Webb proposed the legislation, it has wide support with Democrats like Senator John Kerry, Richard Blumenthal, Dianne Feinstein and Jon Tester signing on as co-sponsors and Republican Scott Brown signed on as did Socialist Berni Sanders. What it intends to do is to create a set of standards that the Secretary of Education would approve of for all institutions.
Dona: Do you support it?
C.I.: As it reads, I'm not seeing how The Actors Studio qualifies. Maybe I'm missing it. Everybody doesn't do a trade that requires a degree. There are serious problems with veterans being ripped off. I don't know that this addresses it. But it's not the primary focus of my life. If it gets the votes and passes, it gets the votes.
Dona: So how did this become an explosive issue?
Kat: Ranking Member Richard Burr felt for-profit institutions were being scapegoated which lead to a heated exchange betweeen him and a witness.
C.I.: IAVA's Tom Tarantino.
Dona: And how did that resolve itself?
Kat: Senator Burr does what he does so well which is refuse to let witnesses run out the clock and made the witness admit that the legislation included measurements that would be applied to both for-profit and non-profit. He also called out the notion that for-profit was evil and noted we didn't offer this same opinion when it came to hospitals. I'd say he won the round.
Dona: Burn Pits 360 is an advocacy organization for victims of burn pits. The issue of burn pits was raised. Before we get into that, we're going to be running the exchange on burn pits and on the GI Bill -- the payments of the GI Bill -- as their own articles. So don't feel you have to cover every thing. I know they are important issues and that's why we're doing them as their own articles. Kat, explain what burn pits are.
Kat: Burn pits were used in Iraq and Afghanistan by the US military -- they are still in use in Afghanistan. Medical waste, human waste, car batteries, etc. were all burned off in a pit. This leads to toxic fumes. Many veterans are suffering today as a result. And what's being proposed is a Burn Pit Registry similar to the Agent Orange Registry.
Dona: C.I., you reported on this Wednesday and noted that the bill has an uphill fight despite tons of support in Congress.
C.I.: S. 1798 is the Open Burn Pits Registry Act. A similar bill is in the House of Representatives, sponsored by US House Rep. Todd Akin. Senator Mark Udall introduced the bill in the Senate. In both the House and Senate, there is huge support. You have co-sponsors Senators Bill Nelson, Bob Casey, Lamar Alexander, Claire McCaskill, Chuck Schumer, Jon Tester and more. In the House, Representatives Bob Filner, Shelley Berkley, Russ Carnahan, Jim McGovern and more are co-sponsors. The reason this is an uphill battle is because we've seen this before. Then-Senator Evan Bayh championed this bill after he, then-Senator Byron Dorgan and others held multiple hearings on the burn pits. And Bayh came before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to make the case for the bill and Jim Webb killed it. Jim Webb's still on the Committee, there's a good chance he'll see to it that this is buried again.
Dona: And Webb killed it because?
C.I.: As Kat noted, this would be similar to the Agent Orange Registry. Based on the tantrum Webb threw when VA Secretary Eric Shinseki expanded coverage for Agent Orange victims, it's a cost issue. For those who missed that moment, it's the reason Jim Webb is not running for re-election. Veterans did not appreciate that. His support cratered in 2010 as he repeatedly attacked Shinseki's decision which was very popular with veterans. For those who missed the public exchange between Webb and Shinseki, you can refer to the September 23, 2010 Iraq snapshot.
Dona: So this is needed but there's powerful opposition to it that could prevent it from being voted on. I think we all agree that if it came to a floor vote in both houses it would pass. The Post 9/11 GI Education Bill did pass and is the law. What's the problem there?
Kat: The same problem that existed in 2009: Veterans are not getting their payments in a timely manner. There are five that were mentioned in the hearing who might be evicted because they've been enrolled since May but still aren't getting their checks. And were told that the VA is six weeks behind in issuing the checks. The VA did a song and dance in the hearing but Senator Burr pointed out that the veterans were told the VA was six weeks behind and then all the sudden, the rosy claims the VA was handing out fell away.
Dona: This was supposed to have been dealt with.
C.I.: Which is why it's so frustrating. The VA's been offered money for equipment, money for additional staff. The Congress has been told it's not necessary. Yet it's the same problems, as Kat pointed out, that we saw in 2009.
Dona: Okay, so this is rush transcript and we will continue to cover veterans issues.