Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday were surprised to hear that the Department of Veterans Affairs has no position on proposed legislation that would give the department advanced funding for discretionary budget items.
The so-called advanced appropriation authority already exists for the department’s healthcare programs, and veterans' advocates support the proposal.
So when the department’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning Robert Snyder told the House Veterans Affairs Committee the agency had not formulated a position on the bill, called the Putting Veterans Funding First Act, lawmakers were taken aback.
"This bill was filed in February," committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said. "VA testified before the Senate [Veterans Affairs Committee] two months ago on it, and the VA still does not have a position on it?"
Snyder said advanced appropriations for all discretionary accounts -- including information technology, disability claims and construction budgets -- would have to be considered not only by the department, but by the White House, as part of a review of its impact across all agencies.
"I am not saying VA is against it, I'm saying we don't have a position right now," he said.
Backers of the bill see it as a way to get the department to tackle its claims backlog -- among the biggest source of complaints against the agency -- and move ahead on construction projects and maintenance of the nation's veterans' cemeteries.
"Each area requires advance planning for staffing, equipment, or contract services," Miller said. "[And] all of that is made more difficult when there is no certainty of what the full-year funding level will be." The legislation would "end the uncertainty by ensuring VA has its full discretionary appropriation well before the fiscal year begins," he said.
"For some reason there is a hang-up on this and we're going to find out what it is," Miller added. "I can't figure out why you wouldn't want to jump at the opportunity for what has been described [when it comes to health care budgeting] as a wildly successful program."
Also during the hearing, the VA said it opposes legislation that would make permanent a requirement that the Government Accountability Office -- the investigative arm of Congress -- report each year on the accuracy of the department’s medical budget requests.
The provision was mandated as part of the department’s budget for the past few years, and some lawmakers want the annual audit to continue indefinitely.
Veteran service organizations -- whose representatives formulate an independent budget for Congress each year, called the Independent Budget -- support the measure.
In their report to the House panel on Wednesday, the vets groups noted that in the first two years of reviewing the VA's health budget, government auditors found unjustified and questionable accounting practices, including basing budget reductions on unverified savings from future operational improvements.
Snyder said the department has already increased the information it provides to justify the annual request.
"VA believes this information, supplemented by the continuing and ongoing oversight of the VA by Congress, as well as engagement by the General Accountability Office ... provides ample review of and transparency for the VA's budget process," he said in his prepared remarks.
If the bill is adopted, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, who heads the GAO, would have four months from its enactment to submit the review to the House Veterans Affairs Committee, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.