Statement Of Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) On the FY 2019 THUD Appropriations Bill and MilCon VA Appropriations Bill

The Committee has two bills before it today—the FY 2019 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies Bill, and the FY 2019 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Bill.  Both are the product of hard work and bipartisan cooperation by each of the subcommittees, and I urge members to support them.  

First, I want to thank Chairman Collins and Ranking Member Reed for producing a good, bipartisan bill free of poison pill riders.  The Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill they have put before us will help make critical infrastructure investments in Vermont and across the country, including $10 billion in new funds to help address our nation’s crumbling bridges, railways, and roads.  These increases are a direct result of the bipartisan budget deal reached earlier this year and are critically needed.  Improving our nation’s infrastructure was one of President Trump’s key campaign promises, but instead of proposing realistic solutions, he has criticized the very budget deal that made these increases possible, and proposed cutting, not increasing, funding for many of the programs that this bill supports.  I am glad the Subcommittee went in a different direction.     

This bill includes $50 million to invest in safety upgrades on state supported rail lines, which will help improve safety on Amtrak’s Vermonter and the Ethan Allen lines.  The $50 million increase in funding for State of Good Repair grants will extend assistance to make much-needed upgrades to railroad bridges throughout states like Vermont.  And, on top of providing more resources for infrastructure, the full funding we include for the Essential Air Service will help protect air service in rural areas, including between Rutland and Boston.  

This bill also protects key investments in affordable housing infrastructure and assistance.  The CDBG and HOME programs provide crucial funding that Vermont housing advocates leverage to construct, rehabilitate and maintain affordable housing – housing we desperately need in Vermont and across the country.  This bill also includes resources to develop and promote shared equity housing models among NeighborWorks affiliates – these programs are sustainable, can keep homes affordable in perpetuity and promote economic mobility.  Finally, this bill continues investments in rapid rehousing projects and supportive services and activities that are critical to assist survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking, and help ensure survivors will have a safe place to stay and are not faced with returning to their abuser or becoming homeless.

I also want to thank Senator Boozman and Senator Schatz for their work on FY 2019 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Bill.  It is a good bill that dedicates considerable resources for the support and care of our veterans, including $2 billion to address the maintenance backlog at our VA hospitals and clinics, as agreed to in the bipartisan budget deal.  This is Senator Boozman’s first year as the Chairman of this important Subcommittee, and he should be proud of the product before the Committee today. 

The bill also provides resources important to Vermonters.  It increases funding for long-term, non-institutional care programs like the Veterans Independence Program in Vermont, which partners with community providers to support veterans who prefer to continue living in their own homes, avoiding costly nursing home care and offering better quality of life.  It provides funding for homeless veterans programs, such as the Grant and Per Diem program that offers supportive transitional housing to homeless veterans, and it includes a $110 million increase for Supportive Services for Veteran Families that helps veterans and their families to secure permanent affordable housing.  The bill doubles funding for the popular Adaptive Sports Grant Program and proposes expanding it so that more service-disabled veterans, including those who suffer from invisible injuries like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and brain injuries, can participate in life-long sports in their communities, or train to showcase their mental and physical training at national competitions.  This bill also includes a $40 million investment for the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and its evidence-based approach to the treatment of veterans bearing the hidden wounds of war. 

Just as important as what is included in this bill, however, is what is not.  This bill does not provide money to cover the costs associated with the VA Choice program, which was transferred to the discretionary side of the budget under the MISSON Act, passed by Congress last month.  I supported the MISSION Act because it will help address real failings in the care we provide for our veterans by creating a new consolidated Community Care program. 

However, the MISSON Act only provided funding for this program through May 2019, leaving the balance unaddressed.  To cover the shortfall, the new programs will require an estimated $1.5 billion in FY 2019, and we will need an additional $8.6 billion in FY 2020, and $9.5 billion in FY 2021.  We do our veterans no favors by promising care without backing it up with resources. Unfortunately, these costs were not accounted for when we negotiated the budget caps in the bipartisan budget deal, so the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee were unable to address these costs within their allocation without cutting funding for other important programs.  Senator Shelby and I are committed to solving this issue as this bill moves forward to ensure we live up to the promises we make to our veterans – we owe it to them. 

Unfortunately, the President of the United States does not agree.  Yesterday he signed the MISSION Act with much fanfare, touting his support for our nation’s veterans, but at the same time his administration is actively undermining our efforts to fund the program.  Signing a bill, then opposing the resources to fund it is no different from writing a rubber check.  To truly address the health care needs of our veterans, we need to not only fix the policy, the President should request the necessary funds to cover the services we have promised them.  Not doing so would jeopardize the health care and wellbeing of the men and women who have faithfully served our country, and I am not willing to accept that.  None of us should.

I will now make the motion to report the bills, and urge an “Aye” vote to advance these bills to the floor for consideration by the full Senate. 

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