Leahy Statement On the FY 2018 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill

Good Morning Chairman Cochran and members of the Committee.  I am pleased to be here and look forward to my first Appropriations Committee markup as Vice Chairman.  I am particularly pleased to be sitting next to my good friend from Mississippi, Thad Cochran.  He and I have been friends for many years, and I look forward to working with him this year to move these bills forward in a bipartisan manner, which has been a hallmark of this Committee. 

Chairman Cochran and I are both committed to returning to regular order, and completing each of the 12 appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2018.  But this is going to be a very challenging year. 

The 2015 budget deal expires at the end of September, and we return to post-sequestration budget caps in FY 2018.  These caps are set in law.  They mandate a $3 billion cut in non-defense programs from last year’s funding level, and a $2 billion cut to defense programs.  This is not realistic nor sustainable.

It has been over five years since passage of the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011.  Instead of leading to comprehensive fiscal reform, we have been operating under budget caps that will have consequences for the average American for a generation.  Discretionary programs have been cut by $2 trillion dollars under the BCA.  That means cuts to programs that support our veterans, secure our nation, build infrastructure, and protect our environment.  The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 and the Bipartisan Budget Agreement of 2015 provided temporary relief, but that relief is now gone. 

If we do not adjust these caps, they will require at least a two percent cut in most non-defense programs, and additional cuts in defense.  Undoubtedly, the cuts will be in areas where we should be investing the most: education, job training, infrastructure, and rural communities. 

In June, Senators Schumer, Durbin, Murray, Stabenow and I wrote a letter to Senator McConnell and Chairman Cochran making clear that a budget deal to lift the caps was essential to successfully completing the appropriations bills in FY 2018.  We also called for the bills to be free of poison pill riders.  I am glad that the bill before us today does not contain any poison pills, and I thank Chairman Cochran and Chairman Moran for that. 

But I am disappointed that we are moving forward today without a budget deal in place, and without a spending allocation for each bill.  We need a clear path forward.  When Chairman Cochran offers an allocation, I will offer an alternative allocation based on parity.  My allocation will be set to a responsible topline and establish a spending allocation for each bill.  At each markup, the Ranking Members will offer an amendment that will show what we could do for the American people with the additional dollars to invest in our communities, help create jobs, and support hard-working families.  And as we move forward in this process, I hope we make progress on a bipartisan budget deal that will make these amendments a reality. 

I want to make one thing very clear, however, before we turn to the bill before us today.  We can start this process in Committee without a bipartisan budget deal in place, because we need to move things forward do our jobs.  But we cannot finish the appropriations process without a budget deal in place.  It won’t happen. 

The current caps will not allow us to produce 12 responsible bills.  So I look forward to working with Chairman Cochran, Senator McConnell, Senator Schumer, and others on an end game.    

I will now turn to the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill.  I want to thank Senator Moran and Senator Schatz for their work on this important bill.  We can all agree that our veterans deserve our support.

This bill dedicates considerable resources for the support and care of our veterans, and in addressing some of the backlogs in military construction projects. As I have already said, I am disappointed that we are beginning this markup season without allocations for all of the 12 bills we will consider before the end of September. 

Nonetheless, I appreciate that this bill was given an allocation that is $6 billion above the FY 2017 level, including a $ 4 billion increase for veterans.  This will provide much-needed funds to improve medical care and services for our veterans, who deserve no less, including in our rural areas. 

The bill invests in addressing backlogs in the appeals process, something I hear about from Vermont veterans regularly.  It takes seriously the opioid crisis, supporting efforts that aim at prevention and treatment of addiction. I am pleased that this bill also supports the White River Junction, Vermont, based National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, by providing funding to implement its consultation program and other good works.  This program will help rural providers gain access to evidence-based best practices for assisting veterans. 

But even with the increased allocation, we have unmet needs.  For example, this year the VA must absorb $1 billion in new personnel costs for nurses and doctors hired under the Choice Act.  The Trump budget did not account for these costs.  Without additional funding we will be unable to sustain these new hires without delaying or sacrificing treatment for our veterans.  I expect Senator Schatz will speak more to this issue, and offer an amendment to address this and other unmet needs.  I look forward to hearing from him this morning.    

Mr. Chairman, in closing I want to note that there are provisions in this bill that give me great concern, because they move us further away from the goal of shuttering the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. 

We have long known that our maximum security prisons and our tested and proven Article III courts are fully capable of prosecuting, convicting, and imprisoning high risk detainees.  They have done so many times, at a fraction of the cost per detainee compared to the cost of housing them at Guantanamo. 

Not only is our reputation tarnished by this facility which has become internationally synonymous with torture, we have perpetuated a recruiting tool for terrorists, while requiring American taxpayers to pay the exorbitant costs.  Both George W. Bush and President Obama expressed a desire to close the Guantanamo prison facility, and we should be moving to resolve the remaining cases and close it.

Thank you, Senator Moran and Senator Schatz, for your work on this bill. 

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CONTACT: Jay Tilton – 202-224-2667