Republicans on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee will have a new leader in 2021, but candidates vying for the post are promising as little disruption as possible to their members’ efforts to advance bipartisan policies to help veterans.
Lawmakers in the House Republican Party caucus are set to vote as early as Wednesday afternoon on the new ranking member for the committee, to replace Tennessee Rep. Phil Roe, who is retiring at the end of 2020.
Although Democrats will continue to control the House next session, the minority leadership post is of high importance to veterans groups both because of its traditional role in crafting congressional policy on veterans issues and its potential role as key critic of the incoming Democratic presidential administration’s VA leadership.
Despite that, however, both of the top candidates for the post — Illinois Rep. Mike Bost and Michigan Rep. Jack Bergman — insist they see more opportunities for bipartisan compromise on veterans issues in the upcoming Congress than friction points between the parties.
“It’s a case where so many issues we deal with are not partisan,” said Bost, 59, who served three years in the Marine Corps before entering state and local politics. “We can work together. I don’t know a single person on the committee that doesn’t know and understand that.”
Bost is the current ranking member on the committee’s panel on disability assistance and memorial affairs and seen by party insiders as the front-runner for the post.
He has been on the committee since his election to Congress in 2015, making him one of the longest tenured lawmakers there.
Bost says his priorities, if elected ranking member, will center on toxic exposure issues (particularly support for younger veterans exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan), continued suicide prevention efforts, and revamping transition programs for troops leaving the military for civilian life.
“Every military person when they leave the military thinks that life is gonna be rosy on the outside,” he said. “And they’ve got to understand that if they get into a situation where they’re homeless, where they’re jobless, where all these issues might come up, the VA doors are open to them for the benefits that they need.”
Bergman, 73, served 40 years in the Marine Corps Reserve and was elected to Congress two years after Bost. He is the ranking member committee’s panel on oversight and investigations and also sits on the House Armed Services Committee, which he said will be a key to his priorities if he is elected to the leadership role.
“The key here will be to build the bridges for transition from DOD to the VA,” he said. “The easiest of those, which should have been done a long time ago but we’re working on it now, is electronic health records (linked between the two departments). So that will be the focus of how I’ll do business.”
Both men promised they’ll “hold VA accountable” on implementing recent congressional reforms, in particular new rules regarding community grants for suicide prevention and increased access to private-sector care for veterans having trouble getting medical needs met at VA hospitals.
And both said they are optimistic that they can strike a more cooperative tone with Democratic leaders of the committee next session.
Although the committee’s work is less contentious than many on Capitol Hill, members have sparred along party lines on several occasions in recent months, including a walk-out by Republican members (including both Bost and Bergman) in fall 2019 over a dispute concerning committee vote schedules.
But those past conflicts may be easier to forget because of the frequent turnover the committee typically sees each congressional cycle. Already, four Democratic incumbents on the committee lost their reelection bids.
With Roe’s retirement, that means almost one-fifth of the committee’s membership will be new next year even before any other committee assignment changes are made.
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.