New Leaders for VA, Military Senate Committees as GOP Takes Control

By Sandra Basu

isakson photo

In 2013, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chaired a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee field hearing on the Georgia State University campus to examine reports from the VA Inspector General, detailing mismanagement of inpatient and contracted outpatient mental health programs at the Atlanta VAMC in the wake of three veteran suicides. Photo courtesy of Georgia State University.

WASHINGTON — As Congress kicked off its 114th session last month, key committees that shape defense and veterans legislation welcomed new leaders.

Among those leaders was Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), who took over the committee chair position for the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. He replaces Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Both the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee are now led by Republicans.

“We are at a critical moment in history with the VA, and I will be fiercely committed as chairman of the Senate committee to making sure the Department of Veterans Affairs seizes this moment and rises to meet the challenge of implementing these reforms for our nation’s veterans. There’s no greater call for us in Congress than to bring value back to the VA and our veterans,” Isakson said in a statement.

Isakson served in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966-1972 — and has been a member of the Senate VA Committee since he joined the Senate in 2005. He will chair not only the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee but also the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. His office said he is the only Senate Republican to chair two committees in the 114th Congress.

On defense issues, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a former POW and Republican presidential nominee, took the gavel of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“It is a singular honor to be given the great responsibility of leading the Senate Armed Services Committee,” he said in a statement.

McCain, who often is outspoken on defense issues, has been critical of cuts proposed in the defense budget in recent years. He also has been vocal about the problems at the Phoenix VA. Last month, he was urging President Barack Obama to visit the Phoenix VA on his trip to Phoenix, which did not occur.

“It has been nine months since reports surfaced of veterans dying due to gross mismanagement and neglect at the Phoenix VA, and, despite the passage of bipartisan reform legislation, our veterans community continues to have a serious lack of trust in the VA,” McCain said.

In the House, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) officially became the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. He previously served on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, as well as on the Budget Committee, Resources Committee and the Select Committee on Homeland Security.

Also taking on a new position is Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV), a physician who will chair the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee. His committee is responsible for military personnel policy and military healthcare, among other issues. Heck has opposed the administration’s proposals to raise pharmaceutical copays and other compensation and benefits changes.

New Legislation

Meanwhile, lawmakers wasted no time introducing legislation last month. Among those bills was one introduced by House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) that would give the VA secretary the authority to recoup bonuses paid to VA employees in certain circumstances.

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