House appropriators called the White House’s request for another big increase in Veterans Affairs spending next year all but impossible unless administration officials agree to lift budget caps on other non-defense programs.
Last month, President Donald Trump unveiled plans for more than $243 billion in spending on VA programs and benefits as part of his $4.8 trillion spending plan for fiscal 2021. The VA budget boost, more than 10 percent from this year’s spending levels, significantly dwarfs plans for other non-military programs, most of which would see steep budget cuts.
On Wednesday, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee panel which oversees the department’s spending blasted the proposal as “a fantasy budget” which has no current path of becoming law.
“VA’s budget request is impossible without slashing funding for other departments which also benefit veterans,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.
“I understand in an election year that it’s easy to ask for the moon, sun and stars, and under other circumstances we would be for it. But this is not a good-faith proposal.”
Last year, lawmakers agreed upon a two-year budget deal which limited non-defense discretionary spending for fiscal 2021 to just under $627 billion. Wasserman Schultz noted that means about $2 billion more for those programs next year from this year’s budget. VA’s proposed discretionary spending boost alone is about $12 billion.
Wasserman Schultz criticized the White House proposal as an attempt to make the White House look more veteran friendly by creating unrealistic spending expectations.
“We would love to be able to do this … but this budget is just using our pawns in a political game,” she said.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie defended the proposal as necessary to continue needed reforms and new missions within his department. He said the extra money will pay for additional mental health care and suicide prevention programs, continued implementation of new community care medical appointments, and new disability benefits for Blue Water Navy veterans.
“I am fully supportive of the president’s budget,” he said. “I was told (by the White House) that veterans are the priority, and this is the direction we should head.”
But Wilkie also deflected questions about cuts in other public health, employment transition and disability assistance programs, saying that work should be negotiated between the president and congressional leaders.
The VA budget has come under increased scrutiny in recent years as it has risen dramatically. Even as spending has gone up each year — the FY21 budget request is nearly double the VA’s budget total a decade ago — lawmakers have warned that the department cannot anticipate unchecked growth on an annual basis.
Next year’s budget request for VA would make it the second-largest government agency in terms of spending, behind only the Department of Defense (whose planned spending is almost six times the proposed VA level.)
Despite reaching that two-year spending deal last summer, most lawmakers in Congress are skeptical that a budget plan for VA or any other federal department can be completed by October, the start of the new fiscal year.
That’s largely due to the compressed legislative schedule and political ramifications connected to this fall’s presidential election and congressional re-election contests.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.