The U.S. House voted to give the Veterans Affairs Department, which was exempted from this year’s budget cuts and furloughs, the money to hire more staff in fiscal 2014.
The spending bill, which advanced on a vote of 421-4, would allow the department to hire 94 new employees to help handle a backlog of disability claims that has drawn the ire of lawmakers. The department has 56 regional benefits offices serving more than 20 million veterans.
“I will not accept any further excuses; the VA must make progress,” Representative Nita Lowey, the top Democrat on the panel that wrote the appropriations bill, said today.
Average wait times for first-time disability claims range between 316 days and 327 days, according to a May 28 bipartisan letter signed by 165 House lawmakers.
The legislation was the first of its 12 annual spending bills to reach the House floor. It would increase resources for military veterans and reduce funding for Pentagon construction projects.
The bill’s $157.8 billion total is almost $13 billion more than current funding levels.
The Veterans Affairs Department would be given 3.5 percent more in fiscal 2014, in part to help reduce its backlog of disability claims, while funding for Defense Department construction spending would decline by about 7 percent.
“Clearly this is an austere budget year, to put it mildly,” Kentucky Republican Hal Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said today. “Virtually all areas of the government will face cuts.”
The bill would place restrictions on some funds in order to require the Pentagon and VA to develop a single system for housing medical records.
The Pentagon said last month that it plans to buy a new electronic health records system, instead of building a single system to handle current and former troops’ health records with the VA. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel promised to work closely with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to develop a “seamless system,” according to a Pentagon statement on May 22.
The measure “does not mandate the adoption of a particular system, only that it be a single system,” said Sanford Bishop of Georgia, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Subcommittee, said today. “I don’t think that we should get into the business of picking software.”
Companies including Palo Alto, California-based Hewlett-Packard Co., Armonk, New York-based International Business Machines Corp. and McLean, Virginia-based SAIC Inc. have won contracts for work on the Pentagon’s existing system for maintaining medical records.
The bill would prohibit using funds for new construction or renovations to facilities in the U.S. to house individuals detained at Guantanamo Bay, creating a potential roadblock for President Barack Obama, who on May 23 said he is directing the Defense Department to designate a U.S. site where trials by military commissions can be held. Obama said that he’ll ask Congress to lift restrictions on transferring Guantanamo detainees to other countries and lift a moratorium on transfers to Yemen.
Obama pledged in 2009 to close the prison at Guantanamo.
Lawmakers didn’t include the $185 million requested by the Obama administration to cover a 1 percent civilian pay raise.
That omission is one of the reasons that the White House objected to the way the bill was written.
Other objections included the prohibition on funding to house Guantanamo Bay detainees in the U.S.; and incremental funding for a military construction project at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, which “runs counter to sound budgeting principles and fiscal discipline.”
The bill is H.R. 2216.