Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Bush Betrays Veterans


Bush Betrays Veterans

Date: Jul 13, 2004 - 08:31 PM
As the November election nears, veterans need to realize that President Bush has not been their friend, that Republicans are anti-veteran.
By Gerald S. Rellick

In the spring of 2003, shortly after the start of the war in Iraq, the state of affairs on veterans funding in the Republican controlled House was by all accounts surprisingly hostile to veterans. The Bush administration sent to the House its proposal for cutting $844 million from veterans’ health care from the 2004 budget. Over a 10-year period the cuts would total approximately $10 billion. When the proposal reached the House Budget Committee, all 18 Democrats opposed the cuts, and they proposed an amendment to restore the $844 million and add another billion for VA discretionary health care. Led by their chairman, Jim Nussle of Iowa, Republicans on the committee, in an almost perfect party-line vote, 22-19, rejected the amendment and proceeded with the Bush proposal.

The uproar that followed this partisan attempt to cut veterans’ benefits in a time of war caught Republicans off guard and they quickly backed off. But the die was cast. Everyone knew where Bush and the Republicans stood on the matter of honoring the country’s veterans.

The political miscalculation by the White House and the Republicans reveals a deep sore within the world of America’s veterans. Since the days of the Civil War, America’s fighting men have always been on the losing end of budget battles in one administration after another, mocking, as it were, Abraham Lincoln’s admonition “to care for him who shall have borne the battle.” Out of their sense of duty and loyalty, veterans have no doubt been reluctant to criticize their government, not fully appreciating perhaps that it is the government officials in power who are to be held responsible, not the country or the American people. In addition, veterans have been notoriously difficult to organize as a constituent group. This lack of strong representation has made them an easy target when money is tight.

George Bush’s hard-nosed stand against expanding veterans’ benefits is difficult to understand. One might have thought Bush would do no more than hold the line on spending. After all, this is a president who had just launched the biggest military campaign since the Vietnam War and who styles himself as a “war president.” Barbara Ehrenreich, in an article in the April Progressive, wonders why George Bush, for purely practical reasons, isn’t rushing to “enrich the frontline troops rather than nickel-and-diming them every inch of the way.” Ehrenreich says that since at least the seventeenth century, governments have realized the need to provide for those who do the fighting in war. As she puts it, “If you want the working class to die for you, then you have to give them something in return.” But this all seems lost on George Bush. As a Los Angeles Times editorial noted recently, Bush’s motivations seem at times not only bizarre but random, absent of any coherence.

And so, Bush found himself in a difficult situation, although one of his own making. His three rounds of tax cuts, with the overwhelming benefit going to the wealthy, cost the U.S. Treasury $2 trillion (that’s spelled with a ‘t’). When you add the cost of the war in Iraq (currently at $200 billion and counting) and a $500 billion budget deficit, Bush found himself under great pressure to demonstrate to “real Republicans”--those few who still believe in fiscal responsibility--that he was willing to cut costs. Taking a position against increasing veterans’ benefits was clearly a calculated political gamble by Bush and the GOP. In short, they were hoping veterans simply wouldn’t notice. It’s an old game but never before played so brazenly and recklessly as by this president.

Fast-forward one year to the present and we find an array of charges and countercharges surrounding the 2005 veterans’ budgets. Democrats and various veterans’ organizations are once again critical of Bush and the GOP for shortchanging veterans. Some have charged that the veterans’ budget is actually being cut. In fact, as the organization FactCheck.org reports, the veterans’ budget under Bush has risen steadily each year. If the current numbers hold (the 2005 budget is far from final), the total increase under Bush will be about 38%. In the eight years of the Clinton administration, the veterans’ budget increased by 32%.

It turns out that critics have been careless in their choice of words. The real issue is that while the dollar amount going to veterans’ programs has increased, the increases have fallen seriously short of demand. By the VA’s own account, demand for VA services has been increasing at a rate of about 15% per year while the average annual funding has increased by only 9.5%. Using these numbers, one calculates that the VA budget is about $10 billion below the level determined by demand. VA director Anthony Principi admitted in February in a House committee hearing that he had asked the Bush budget team for approval to seek an additional $1.2 billion but that his request was denied. FactCheck.org called this blunt admission by Principi “a rare break with administration protocol.”

Another troubling aspect of the Bush administration’s handling of veterans is what is known as demand management: If funding is below demand, then do what is necessary to reduce demand. This is exactly what the VA has done with the program known as Veterans Outreach. This program, created by Congress in 1970, was intended to ensure that all veterans receive “timely and appropriate assistance to aid and encourage them in applying for and obtaining” federal benefits and services. To fulfill this purpose, Congress charged the VA “with the affirmative duty of seeking out eligible veterans and eligible dependents and providing them” with the federal benefits and services to which they are entitled.

In July 2002, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Deputy Secretary for Operation and Management, Laura Miller, issued a memorandum to all VA Network Directors regarding the agency’s Outreach policy toward veterans. In her statement, Miller instructed all Network Directors to “ensure that no marketing activities to enroll new veterans occur within your networks.” It goes on to say that “[e]ven though some sites might have local capacity … all facilities are expected to abide by this policy.” In effect, VA employees were specifically directed to refrain from actively recruiting more people into the VA health care system and to provide only general information.
Representative Ted Strickland, Democrat from Ohio, objected strongly to the VA position on Outreach. According to Strickland’s office, Principi defended this policy, stating in a letter to Strickland in January 2003: “I made the decision to temporarily restrict marketing in order to conserve scarce fiscal resources for the veterans already enrolled in the VA system.”
Shortly after Principi’s letter, Congressman Strickland and Thomas Corey, the president of Vietnam Veterans of America, filed suit in federal court “to compel the VA to comply with its legal obligation to inform potential patients and beneficiaries of available VA programs and services.” The lawsuit states that, “Congress has explicitly directed the VA to perform outreach services to ensure that veterans and their families are aware of services and benefits to which they are entitled.”

The Knight Ridder newspaper group recently reported the results of its analysis of the number of veterans who are potentially missing out on disability payments and who would benefit if Outreach were to be aggressively implemented. Using the VA’s own survey data, Knight Ridder estimates the number of such veterans at 572,000. If only a third of these veterans turned out to be eligible, the cost would be about $1.5 billion. But as we’ve seen, while this amount is pocket change compared to the Bush tax cuts and the war in Iraq, or the recent Medicare bill at $500 billion dollars, for veterans, sadly, this is big money.

The annual uncertainty in veterans’ funding has led over the years for calls to make veterans’ health care benefits mandatory. This would place them in the category of entitlements, the same as social security and Medicare. Imagine the nightmare if social security benefits were subject each year to congressional and executive branch priorities and whims. The moral argument is the same: As a country, we have an obligation to take care of those who served and sacrificed for our welfare.

As reported by Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant, in late June Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle proposed just this--making veterans’ health care coverage mandatory. Daschle proposed a two-year trial of the entitlement idea. The cost of fully funding the health care need was estimated to be an additional $2.6 billion next year and then to rise with the number of eligible veterans and inflation after that. But, says Oliphant, “The vote never had a chance.… The Senate needed to waive budget rules to consider the proposal as part of an annual military spending measure. That requires 60 votes; it got 49.”

But, as Oliphant notes, an important point was made. Congressional Democrats and John Kerry support mandatory funding of veterans’ health care. George Bush, Dennis Hastert, and Bill Frist do not. If the Senate and House were not in Republican control, veterans with health care needs could rest easy.

As the November elections near, many veterans are being forced to reexamine their longstanding support for the Republican Party. What we have in Washington today is not the Republican party of Eisenhower or Goldwater or even Richard Nixon. Bush and his breed are something new, a mutant breed that feeds on ideology, greed, and pure political power. And it feeds on the weak. Veterans who support Bush are voting against their own interests and those of their comrades, particularly those who are disabled and others in need of medical care. Men and women who have worn the uniform of the U.S. military know there is no greater disgrace than to let their buddies down. It’s time that veterans and their families recognize that the greatest threat to America’s security comes not from without but from within.

Earlier Article by the Author:
Bush Attacks’ Veterans Benefits

Related Intervention Articles:

Republican Attack On U.S. Veterans
Republicans Seek To Slash VA Budget!
Billions For Invading Iraq And Homelessness For Veterans
Veterans Administration Out Of Control?
Bush’s War Against U.S. Military Veterans

Gerald S. Rellick, Ph.D., worked in the defense sector of the aerospace industry. He now teaches in the California Community College system. You can email Gerald at Rellick@interventionmag.com

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