WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said Friday that his department won’t be exempted from President Donald Trump’s planned spending cuts, but he is also confident that Congress will ultimately increase the VA budget to ensure programming needs are met.
“I am convinced that the veterans budget, by the time it gets through both chambers of Congress, will replace this last veterans budget as the largest in history,” Wilkie said at a speech on the state of his department at the National Press Club.
The comments came just a few weeks after Trump announced plans to request a 5 percent budget cut from all federal agencies for fiscal 2020, to help rein in the size of government.
The president did say that the Defense Department wouldn’t see the same requirement, but would aim for a slimmer $700 billion spending plan instead of another increase. Many veterans groups also wondered if VA would be similarly exempted, given Trump’s past promises to fix and fully fund veterans programs.
But Wilkie said he is already in the process of looking for ways to meet the request, which would amount to about $10 billion in reduced spending. The fiscal 2019 VA budget topped $200 billion for the first time in department history, and has seen steady increases since fiscal 2002.
Wilkie said he is taking the cost-cutting task seriously, but also indicated he is unsure if the president intends for VA spending to go down.
“I will present the case for the Department of Veterans Affairs,” he said. “In the last presidential campaign, the president committed everything he had to making sure the Department of Veterans Affairs was the most robust it has ever been.”
He also said he is optimistic that the congressional appropriations committees will see the value in more spending to support veterans, not less.
The size of the department’s budget has raised concerns among fiscal conservatives in recent years, especially in light of complaints about health care access and delayed benefits payments.
In fiscal 2001, the VA budget totaled $45 billion. It has grown by almost $100 billion in the last decade alone.
But veterans groups have argued that isn’t a sign of government wastefulness but instead proof that the needs of the country’s veterans population have been underserved for years.
Wilkie’s speech was billed as a report on the state of VA, coming two days before Veterans Day and about 100 days after his confirmation. He described the agency as calmer and more focused now, and moving past the leadership woes of the first half of the year.
In March, Trump fired then VA Secretary David Shulkin via Twitter because of internal fighting at the department. Trump’s pick to replace him, White House physician Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, withdrew from consideration after reports of unprofessional behavior and misconduct in his office. Wilkie was nominated about a month later.