Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie is set to make his annual appearance before the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday morning, a routine budget hearing that will be anything but given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic still restricting Capitol Hill operations.
The event, set for 10 a.m. in the Longworth House Office Building, marks the first in-person appearance by a Cabinet-level official at a House hearing since much of the Capitol campus was locked down in mid-March in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.
Typically, Wilkie’s testimony would be just one of several dozen by department heads throughout the spring to justify their budget requests for the upcoming 2021 budget, each packed with staffers, reporters and outside advocates.
Telephone town halls, some employee remote work will likely continue even when the virus restrictions lift.
But those regular budget hearing plans were scrapped in recent weeks, replaced with online forums and less public testimony exchanges. Wilkie’s hearing is one of the first steps back towards that normal congressional operations for House leaders, who also recently approved plans to allow remote voting for the first time.
Even with witnesses in the room, Thursday’s hearing will look dramatically different than other appropriations events in the past.
Only about 25 people are expected to be admitted into the hearing, according to committee staff. That includes the panel of witnesses — Wilkie, Under Secretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence, Chief Health Consultant Jennifer MacDonald, and Chief Financial Officer Jon Rychalski — as well as up to 11 lawmakers on the appropriations subcommittee overseeing VA.
Committee officials are encouraging all hearing participants to follow Office of Attending Physician guidelines to limit the possibility of infection and wear masks during the event. It is unclear whether the witnesses or lawmakers will follow that recommendation.
Seats are being spaced out six feet apart in the hearing room (which is not typically used by the appropriations committee) and witness tables will have gaps “sufficient to accommodate distancing.”
The entire event will be livestreamed on the committee’s web site, and C-SPAN is also expected to send cameras to the hearing.
If enacted, the proposal would make VA the second-largest federal agency in terms of discretionary spending.
In the last three months, at least 1,191 patients in VA care have died from coronavirus-related complications and more than 13,000 patients total have been infected by the fast-spreading disease.
While Wilkie is expected to field questions about the department’s response and the nearly $20 billion in emergency funding given to VA for that work, the hearing is designed to cover the fiscal 2021 budget request for the department.
VA programs and operations would see a nearly 13 percent boost in discretionary spending next fiscal year under plans outlined by the White House in February. The total funding plan would give more than $240 billion to VA.
That is nearly double the total VA funding level from 10 years ago and more than five times the total in fiscal 2001, when the entire budget was about $45 billion.