WASHINGTON — In its first meeting of the 117th Congress, the House VA Committee advanced a proposal that would allocate $17 billion for VA as part of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan. The hearing highlighted a party-line schism in the committee, however, with Republicans arguing that they wanted to hear from VA officials on why the funding was needed prior to voting.
As a result, the vote passed 17-12, with no Republicans voting in favor.
Chairman Mark Takano (D-CA) called for the vote during the committee’s initial organizational meeting and several days before VA officials were scheduled to testify before the House Appropriations Committee.
“We need to act with urgency to provide relief for our veterans and all Americans,” Takano said. “As of yesterday [Feb. 10], 9,508 veterans and 127 VHA employees have lost their lives to COVID-19. Countless families have had to celebrate milestones over the phone, provide caregiving over a distance or say goodbye over a screen.”
The need for considerable supplemental funding at VA is not a surprise, Takano noted.
“Almost one year ago exactly, in a budget hearing before this committee, I asked former VA secretary Robert Wilkie and then-Acting VHA Executive in Charge Dr. Richard Stone if VA needed supplemental appropriations to prepare for a potential outbreak. The secretary said no,” he recounted. “Dr. Stone agreed but added that if this develops into a pandemic in which portions of the American healthcare system collapse, we’re going to have a different situation. This is that discussion. Currently VA is on track to fully use the money to appropriately use the CARES Act. Given the toll of last year and the unprecedented scale of VA’s emergency response, the amendment [of supplemental funds] could not come at a more critical time.”
While the organizational meeting did not include witnesses, VA had sent details on how it planned to use the funds. That included $13.5 billion to VHA to cover the impact of new veterans, veterans who deferred care during the pandemic, as well as staff increases and telehealth expansion. Portions of the remaining funding would be used to mitigate the impacts of appeals delays, fund investments in information technology and provide matching construction grants to state veterans’ homes to enhance facility safety.
Republicans on the committee, led by Ranking Republican Rep. Mike Bost (R-IL), argued that the single sheet of broad funding categories provided by VA was not enough and wanted the opportunity to ask questions of VA leaders before approving the supplemental funding.
“This mark-up is reckless and irresponsible. It’s the first time our committee has met this Congress. We have only been organized for five minutes,” Bost declared. “Many members are new. We have not held a single hearing. We have not heard from a single witness. And yet the Biden administration and the Democrat majority in Congress are rushing through a vote to spend $1.9 trillion. The VA would get $17 billion of that, which is what our committee will be voting on today. It’s a mystery to me how the number is determined.”
One of Bost’s concerns was that there was no specific allocation to fund vaccine distribution in the bill.
“I can’t think of a single higher priority with respect to COVID relief than the vaccine being distributed,” he said. “We need to get the vaccine into the arms of as many willing Americans as possible.”
Bost introduced an amendment to the bill to include vaccine distribution, but it did not pass. Democrats voting against the amendment noted that the funding would not become available until mid-March at the earliest and that the biggest challenge to vaccine distribution is supply, not allocation.
“This bill we’re voting on today is not really the vehicle [for this issue],” explained Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA). “What is constraining that number is purely an issue of supply. It is not anywhere nearly an issue of legislative authority. The ball we all need to keep our eye on the most to help the largest amount of veterans in the fastest amount of time remains increasing available vaccine supply.”
That was confirmed a few days later at the House Appropriations Committee when VA leaders said that they had more than enough distribution infrastructure but were limited by supply.
Whether the level of supplemental funding is appropriate was not their real concern, Republicans noted. The problem was the precedent being set by the Democratic majority by voting on substantial legislation with what Republicans felt was not enough information.
“The process is a bit of a farce,” said Rep. Jack Bergman (R-MI). “It is irresponsible at best to provide additional funding of this magnitude to VA with so little justification to support it. Last year’s effort was fully nonpartisan, unlike this one.”