Sent: Tue, 6 Dec 2005 11:12:56 -0500
Subject: House Republican Veterans' Committee Chairman Continues to Diminish Veterans' Voices
House chairman clash
Fort Wayne (IN) Journal Gazette, 12/4/05
Legion accuses Buyer of being 'insulting'; Hoosier favors certain limits on benefits
By Sylvia A. Smith
WASHINGTON - To veterans' groups, it's a slap in the face. Or worse. To an Indiana congressman, it's a matter of scheduling. The two interpretations of Rep. Steve Buyer's decision to cancel a traditional joint House-Senate hearing at which veterans service organizations present their legislative wish list have exposed a fault line in the relations between the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee and groups that represent the 24.5 million men and women who served in the U.S. military.
"He's been very adversarial," said Dennis Cullinan, chief lobbyist for the Veterans of Foreign Wars' Washington office. "He's not our idea of an advocate at all. In fact, he seems to work to the detriment of veterans oftentimes."
The national commander of the American Legion was even more blunt. In a letter, Thomas Bock accused Buyer of being "insulting and patronizing."
It's an abrupt change in the normal relations between the House committee that oversees the operation of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the benefits - including VA hospitals - that veterans receive. In nearly two decades of lobbying for the American Legion and working with the congressional committees, Steve Robertson said, "it's gotten a heck of a lot more partisan."
A former Democratic congressman who served on the Veterans Affairs Committee, Tim Penny, said previous committee chairmen - Republican or Democrat - "have been more than willing to accommodate these organizations."
Buyer is just finishing his first year as chairman of the committee, a post he won when the GOP leadership booted the former chairman in January. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., had been an outspoken supporter of veterans' issues and argued that the administration's 2006 budget proposal for the Department of Veterans Affairs was low-balled by $2.6 billion because it didn't take into account the veterans returning from the Iraq war. The House has since increased its budget request by nearly the same amount Smith said was needed.
"It's almost as if no good deed goes unpunished. In Baghdad, when somebody's bleeding, they're not Democrat or Republican. This is one committee that should have nothing to do with politics," Smith told a New Jersey newspaper when he was dismissed as chairman. Smith was out of the country last week and could not be reached.
Unlike Smith, Buyer has backed a series of proposals that would restrict some veterans' benefits to low-income veterans or those with military-connected disabilities. He has also backed requirements that veterans pay to enroll for benefits.
"Throwing more money at this does not mean you are more patriotic," Buyer, a Persian Gulf war veteran and colonel in the Army reserves, said in January. He did not respond to an interview request last week.
It's a view that infuriates many veterans and the agencies that lobby for them in Washington. "We would like to see the VA open to all veterans," said John Dahman of Fort Wayne, chief of staff to the national VFW commander. "They were promised medical care after they got out, but the way Steve looks at it, it should be service-connected, which means a wound or an injury when they were on active duty."
Penny, the former Minnesota congressman who was a senior member of the committee when Buyer was appointed to the panel as a freshman lawmaker in 1993, said the committee historically has been an advocate for veterans. Most members of the committee, he said, take the view that veterans have a bigger claim on the public purse than others because "this is a population of people who put everything on the line and weren't very well compensated. This is the price we pay for the war they fought on our behalf."
Buyer, however, believes that veterans' benefits shouldn't be universal. "We are all veterans, but some do come first," he said in a letter to American Legion members the day before Veterans Day. "Veterans with service-connected disabilities, special needs such as blindness or spinal cord injuries, or the indigent are VA's core constituency."
Buyer's "core constituency" distinction has made veterans' groups uneasy all year. So there was no reservoir of good will when Buyer announced last month that he was adopting a new game plan for the annual joint House-Senate hearings. Leaders of the veterans groups traditionally testify before the House and Senate veterans committees meeting jointly. Joint hearings are rare on Capitol Hill. The VFW, for instance, typically testifies in September. Buyer announced that the 2006 hearings would not be held with the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and would be in February.
That did not sit well with Bock, the VFW national commander. "I fail to see how testifying about the budgetary needs of veterans two months after the (president's) budget has been submitted serves any good purpose," Bock wrote in a letter to Buyer. He said he was also annoyed that Buyer made the decision without first consulting with the VFW.
Buyer's announcement struck many as odd, including a former member of the committee, Jill Long Thompson. She served on the committee for six years when she was the congresswoman who represented northeast Indiana and now heads an agricultural think tank in Washington. While she was in Congress, Thompson said, she found the veterans' groups to be a good source of information about veterans' needs as well as fair-minded about fiscal responsibility.
"I think it is inappropriate to retaliate against a group that holds a different position," she said. "If there is disagreement, the solution does not lie in trying to silence a group or to reduce their voice."
The veterans' groups are particularly sensitive about the rescheduled hearings because hundreds of their members come to Washington and pack the hearing room to watch elected officials behave deferentially to the groups' leaders, said Roger Charles, a retired Marine who is president of Soldiers for the Truth. The non-profit group pushes for better equipment and training for active-duty military. At the end of the interview, he said he didn't realize his comments would appear in a newspaper.
Penny said veterans groups want Buyer to "buck the leadership. They're expecting that he do so. That's why I think they're making it very personal with him."