Republicans and Democrats Unite on at Least One Issue: Oversight of the V.A.

WASHINGTON — Even before the next Congress convenes, Republicans are joining Democrats in a vigorous examination of failings by the Department of Veterans Affairs, a rare area of bipartisan oversight in a blistering political environment.

The unity was emphasized in recent weeks when lawmakers in the House and Senate from both parties sharply criticized the response of V.A. officials after it was revealed that the agency failed to make housing and tuition payments under the G.I. Bill after its computer systems were unable to keep up with recent changes to that law.

Three hearings on separate veterans issues had been scheduled in both the House and Senate last week, but were postponed after the death of former President George Bush.

“These problems have forced our veterans to go without money to pay for basic necessities like food and rent, with some facing potential eviction or the prospect of getting kicked out of school,” said Senator Michael B. Enzi, Republican of Wyoming and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, who wrote a pointed letter to Robert L. Wilkie, the head of the V.A., about the issues with the G.I. Bill payments. “They deserve better.”

Assuring that both parties would continue to monitor these issues, Mr. Enzi said in an email, “Congress has a responsibility to ensure government programs deliver on their promises.”

The next Congress, which begins in January, is expected to tackle a host of issues facing the nation’s 20.8 million veterans, a group that both parties consistently vow to support — but often fail to shield from the more insidious outcomes of a generation of warfare since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Veterans face financial frauds, failures in the health system, drug abuse and other problems stemming from high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. Republicans are unlikely to cede these issues to Democrats a year before a presidential election.

Next year, lawmakers are expected to take on various pieces of legislation and an array of investigations on such issues as preventing veteran suicide, the quality of V.A. nursing homes and the implementation of not only the G.I. Bill but another comprehensive measure concerning veterans health care passed this year. Despite the passage of that legislation, many experts believe current funding will be unable to cover the required costs.

Last month, various Democrats as well as Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said they would give attention to this issue next year.

Further, Democrats are all but certain to initiate investigative work on the so-called Mar-a-Lago group, an informal set of advisers that the Trump administration has turned to on veterans issues, now the subject of a lawsuit.

Personnel changes in Congress also are expected to have an effect on attention to the issue. The expected incoming chairman of the House veterans committee, Representative Mark Takano of California, is generally viewed as more liberal — with an aggressive oversight agenda.

“We welcome congressional oversight,” said Curt Cashour, a spokesman for the V.A. “We also appreciate Congress’ work and cooperation in helping President Trump achieve more substantive reforms at V.A. in the last two years than at any other time in decades.”

Significant changes to laws governing veterans issues have been made under the Trump administration, something that has often been obscured by the politically charged turmoil in leadership at the V.A. and by Mr. Trump’s occasional attacks on prominent veterans, to the frustration of congressional Republicans and some administration officials.

A previous secretary held over from the Obama administration was fired via Twitter after political brawls, and Mr. Trump’s first proposed replacement, Dr. Ronny L. Jackson, a White House doctor, never made it to the Senate confirmation process after members of both parties attacked his professional conduct.

Implementing the new laws has proved bumpy. For instance, under changes made to the G.I. Bill in 2017, veterans’ housing allowances were recalculated to be based on where veterans take classes, rather than their school’s main campus, which had resulted in some veterans being overcompensated for housing, while others were shortchanged.

The V.A. asked colleges, universities and landlords to hold off on their requests for tuition and rent while it prepared its information technology systems for the change to meet an Aug. 1 deadline. When they realized they were running out of time, officials signaled schools to submit their claims, which led to a swamping of the already underwater systems. That held up payments to thousands of schools and landlords.

The V.A. now concedes that it has to go back to the drawing board and may not be able to make payments until next December, but officials gave unclear information as to when back payments would be made for those who were still left short for housing. (The V.A. has said it will not charge those who remain overpaid.) About 450,000 veterans are affected by the change, although the scope of the fallout has not been quantified by the V.A. or other outside experts. Over 6,000 students’ claims through the G.I. Bill are over 30 days old.

After hearing conflicting information about when those payments would be made, both in congressional testimony and official statements from Mr. Wilke and Mr. Cashour last month, lawmakers bridled. Mr. Enzi wrote a letter demanding more information, and members of both the House and Senate veterans committees also sharply pressed the V.A. to come clean on its plans.

At a hearing of a subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Representative Jodey Arrington of Texas, the subcommittee’s chairman, chastised the V.A. for the hold up.

“We’ve sent a lot of letters, we’ve had inquiries, we’ve had personal meetings,” he said. “I think that the answers we’re getting and the delays, and the promises that we’ll have it fixed that end up not happening are unacceptable.”

Democrats were equally skeptical.

“The V.A. still has another pressing problem to address with the current unacceptable delays in payments to students who are relying on them for food and housing,” said Representative Tim Walz of Minnesota, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House veterans committee. “This is not an issue that will go away on its own, and I expect V.A. to be putting as many resources toward solving the delays as it is toward its new contract.”

The G.I. Bill issues will probably continue to face scrutiny in this Congress.

“The chairman plans to continue to diligently oversee this process and ensure that V.A. upholds the law and delivers on its promises to student veterans,” said Molly Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the House Committee on veterans affairs.

“All four corners of the veteran affairs committee were working to address the issue in lock step to make sure it got fixed,” said Lauren Augustine, the vice president of government affairs for Student Veterans of America, an influential group that has been pressing lawmakers on the issue.

By:  Jennifer Steinhauer
Source: New York Times