This week, the fiscal year (FY) 2017 Military Construction and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) appropriations bill is likely to receive floor consideration in the House of Representatives. The first of 12 appropriations bills providing discretionary funding for the federal government, the bill provides funding to the Department of Defense and the VA for the following purposes:
- To house, train, and equip military personnel,
- To provide housing and services to military families,
- To maintain base infrastructure, and
- To fund veterans’ benefits and programs.
The Military Construction and Department of Veterans Affairs appropriations bill provides a total of $81.6 billion in discretionary funding, which includes $63.3 billion in advance appropriations provided in the 2016 omnibus appropriations act. The level proposed for 2017 is $1.8 billion above the 2016 enacted level and $1.2 billion below the Administration’s request. While properly equipping and supporting military families and veterans is an important duty of the federal government, the spending increases proposed by this bill are excessive.
Several programs within the Department of Veterans Affairs with poor track records and a history of mismanagement received large funding increases. In total, the VA received $2.1 billion more than in 2016, while military construction programs were cut by more than $300 million.
This bill provides a total of $7.9 billion to the Department of Defense to carry out both large-scale and small-scale construction and renovation projects on military bases across the globe. This year’s bill is $305 million less in appropriations for military construction than the 2016 omnibus act. This reduction is attributed to the Department’s decision to prioritize readiness activities and the scheduled reductions to military forces.
While readiness is of the utmost importance, instead of reducing the number of U.S. military bases in Europe, the U.S. should be looking at the potential for establishing new bases—especially on the periphery of Europe and with allies who have been committed to Euro-Atlantic security, particularly the Baltic States. Congress should make deeper reforms to non-defense discretionary programs and protect the nation’s military capabilities across the globe.
Military Family Housing
The bill proposes $1.3 billion in funding for construction, operation, and maintenance of military family housing in 2016, a decrease of $84 million from the 2016 enacted level. The program currently serves close to 1.4 million military families.
Military Medical Facilities
The bill provides $304 million for the construction and renovation of new and existing medical facilities. This represents a decrease of $303 million from last year’s enacted level. Approximately 10 million troops at home and abroad are eligible to receive these benefits.
NATO Security Investment Program (NSIP)
The bill proposes $178 million in funding for the NSIP, an increase of $43 million above the 2016 enacted level. Funds will be used for wartime infrastructure, crisis and peace support, deterrence operations, and to meet training requirements. In addition, it will be used to better equip allies to face the growing challenges posed by Russia.
Russia is the largest geopolitical challenge in Europe, and strengthening America’s alliances in Europe requires a response to Russia. At a time when Russia has shown the most aggression against NATO members in a generation, NATO needs American leadership and commitment.
The bill includes language prohibiting the closing of Guantanamo Bay Naval Station and prohibiting any funding to allow a facility within the U.S. to house Guantanamo detainees. In February, President Obama sent his latest plan to close Guantanamo Bay to Congress. There is already a prohibition in place that bans the military from transferring detainees to the mainland. Congress should continue to hold firm and keep enemy combatants off of American soil.
Overseas Contingency Operations
The bill provides $172 million in Overseas Contingency Operations funding for military construction projects. While it is certainly important for troops to be equipped at the highest possible level, these costs should be provided within the base defense budget. Overseas contingency funds have perpetually been used as a method of circumventing the budget caps to prop up the base defense budget rather than to respond to ongoing operational needs abroad.
The bill provides $73.5 billion in discretionary budget authority for Veterans Affairs programs, an increase of $2.1 billion compared to the 2016 level. More than $63 billion was provided in 2016 via advance appropriations. Including more than $100 billion in mandatory funding, Veterans Affairs would receive over $13 billion more in 2017 funding.
The goal of the additional funding is to address the scandals that have been brought to light in recent years and to provide better care and increased access to veterans. While providing the best care for veterans should continue to be the top priority of Veterans Affairs, Congress should be prudent in the amount of funding that it allots to the VA. Simply providing more money will not fix the VA’s problems; Veterans Affairs also needs structural and programmatic reforms.
To improve oversight and improve the efficiency and quality of care to veterans, the bill includes reforms such as:
- Limiting the use of transfers between construction projects,
- Reporting on bid savings,
- Placing limits on changes in the scope of construction projects, and
- Requiring that the Department notify Congress before certain spending actions can take place.
The bill also prohibits any Veterans Affairs senior managers from receiving bonuses in 2017. This move is justified considering the mismanagement of the past several years.
Veterans Affairs Medical Services
The bill provides Veterans Affairs Medical Services with $52.5 billion in discretionary funding that will be used to provide services for 7 million patients next year. Included within Veterans Affairs Medical Services are programs such as:
- Mental health services,
- Suicide prevention,
- Traumatic brain injury treatment,
- Services for homeless veterans, and
- Rural health care initiatives.
Caring for and rehabilitating injured veterans is a fundamental duty of the federal government and funding should be targeted to those who depend on it the most.
Veterans Affairs should focus on the unique needs of military medicine. A 2014 Congressional Research Service fact sheet revealed that more than one out of every 10 VA patients is not a veteran, and the number of non-veterans using the VA’s health care services has increased faster in recent years than has the number of veteran patients. VA resources should be focused solely on providing health care to veterans.
Veterans Affairs ranks veterans who seek medical care on a scale of one through eight with the lower numbers being the highest priority. The groups are defined based on factors such as income and disability status, among others. Veterans in priority groups seven and eight do not have compensable service-connected disabilities and their incomes tend to exceed the VA’s national income threshold and the geographic income threshold. More than 2 million veterans with priority seven or eight are enrolled in the veterans’ health care system. The Department should not be in the practice of providing benefits for veterans in priority groups seven and eight. Scarce VA health care dollars should focus first and foremost on veterans with the most severe disabilities.
The Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill provides key funding to support the country’s troops and their families scattered across the globe and continues to take care of soldiers once their active duty days are over. The Appropriations Committee should be commended for making this bill a top priority each year. However, this bill could be improved by fully funding Department of Defense military construction programs at the requested level or above and off-setting those costs with other non-defense discretionary savings. Congress should also carefully consider how to allocate Veterans Affairs funding and exercise great scrutiny until it is proven that the mismanagement of the past few years has been corrected.
—Justin Bogie is Senior Policy Analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies, of the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity, at The Heritage Foundation.