Vice Chairman Leahy Statement On the FY 2019 Energy & Water, Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Legislative Branch “Minibus” Appropriations Bill
Today we open debate on the first Senate appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2019. The “minibus” before us contains the Energy and Water Appropriations bill, the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill, and the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill. These bills have strong bipartisan support and are the result of hard work and compromise on the part of the Chair and Ranking Member of each Subcommittee.
The Appropriations Committee has so far reported to the floor seven of the 12 annual appropriations bills, each with bipartisan support. This week we will mark up three of the five remaining bills. Chairman Shelby and I are committed to making the appropriations process work again – and so far, in Committee, it has – and I thank him for his leadership and bipartisan cooperation that have helped us achieve these results so far. Our best chance for restoring regular order and avoiding the need to do an omnibus spending bill at the end of the year is to abide by the bipartisan, bicameral budget agreement and avoid poison pill riders. The bill before us does just that.
Chairman Shelby and I want to have a real debate on this spending measure. We want members to come to the floor, offer amendments, and debate them. But, if we are going to succeed in moving this bill through the Senate, members on both sides of the aisle need to show restraint – as we did when marking these bills up in Committee – and refrain from offering controversial legislative matter or other poison pills as amendments. The appropriations bills that make up the minibus before us contain funding for important programs that make a real difference in people’s lives, both in Vermont and across the Nation, and we should not derail them because of unrelated policy fights. If we do this, if both sides of the aisle can show restraint, we will have taken a very important step in getting this process back on track.
The Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill dedicates considerable resources to 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, and critical funding for medical care and research, hospital and clinic construction, and disability and pension programs.
The Energy and Water bill invests in our country’s water infrastructure and energy programs, and provides funding to support our rural communities and farmers that will benefit Vermont and the Nation. I am pleased that the bill supports much needed repairs and improvements in our environmental infrastructure and energy infrastructure, and strengthens innovative ways to deliver these critical assets. This will make not just Vermont but the entire country more resilient to the changing climate and violent weather events.
This bill once again includes strong funding for the Weatherization Program, which helps so many families in Vermont, the Northeast, and northern states across the country who struggle with high home heating prices during the cold winter months. The bill wisely rejects several of the administration’s budget proposals by making real investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency programs. This will accelerate diversified and sustainable energy production in this country, while supporting American innovation in the private sector, as well as the many world class research institutions across the country. It is a bill that will create and sustain jobs.
The Legislative Branch bill provides funding for the Senate at large, but also covers the House of Representatives, the Library of Congress and Copyright Office, the Architect of the Capitol, and the Capitol Police. In addition, it supports the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office, which are essential to Congress’s oversight functions. I support this package of bills and urge other members to do the same.
I want to mention one issue briefly, related to veterans’ health care. The Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill has one serious problem that Chairman Shelby and I are committed to fixing. The 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, and will become part of a new consolidated Community Care program to be funded in this bill. Unfortunately, the MISSON Act only provided funding for this program through May 2019, leaving the balance unaddressed. To cover the shortfall we will need an estimated $1.6 billion more in FY 2019, an additional $8.6 billion in FY 2020, and $9.5 billion in FY 2021.
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 the shortfall within their allocation without cutting funding for other important programs. We do our veterans no favors by promising care without backing it up with resources. Senator Shelby and I are working to find a solution that would provide the flexibility needed to make sure we fulfill this commitment to our veterans, and hope to offer an amendment later this week to address this issue.
I look forward to the debate on the appropriations bill before us. And I ask Senators – all 100 of us – to work with us to restore the appropriations process. We can only achieve success in returning to regular order if we pledge to work together, in the bipartisan spirit in which these bills have been advanced by the 31 members of the Senate Appropriations Committee. I again thank Chairman Shelby and the Chairs and Ranking Members of the relevant subcommittees for their hard work.
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