Montana Democrat Jon Tester has been a key figure in veterans policy decisions for years. But in the new Democratic-controlled Senate, he’s now at the center of all of the chamber’s defense spending and veterans policy moves.
That’s because Tester, 64, has now taken over as chairman of both the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the defense panel of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The combination makes him arguably one of the top lawmakers for all military and veterans decisions for the coming session, at a time when the new administration has promised reforms in both.
“I do think there’s going to be an opportunity to get some good things done here,” he said in a recent interview with Military Times. “It does put us into a position where I can apply pressure to leadership to get some of these important things done for our VA and for the Defense Department.”
Despite the connection between the active-duty and veterans communities, only a few lawmakers in either chamber sit on both the veterans committees and either the armed services or defense appropriations panels. Tester said his unusual role as a leader for both gives him a chance to better highlight those shared challenges and policy priorities.
The chairman spoke about his committee priorities and challenges during a recent interview with Military Times. Portions of the transcript have been edited for length and clarity
MT: How do you see your two chairman roles working together?
Tester: I think where they can have the greatest synergy is the movement from warrior to civilian life. And I think that’s always a big issue.
We do a great job making civilians into warriors. But we don’t do as good a job making warriors into civilians. And I think that with my positions, we should be able to get some things done that can hopefully help that transition, be more effective.
MT: So is there anything that you see right from the get-go that’s gonna get into that? I know there has been a lot of concerns with the medical records issue, with VA switching to a system that will work with DOD.
Tester: I think that the medical records are still not where we need to be. The VA is depending upon the Defense Department a lot in these medical records, and making sure that there’s good communication … making sure that the information is transferred. The nuts and bolts of the [electronic records] to the VA is going to be really important.
[Another issue] is making sure that our military people understand the benefits that are available to them, the resources that are available when they leave the service to help them get back into a civilian life. Whether that’s with health care benefits, or educational benefits, or housing benefits, all that is is really important.
I’m not saying that there hasn’t been a good job done on that in the past. But it’s something that I’ve heard from being on this [Veterans Affairs] committee.
MT: Well, I’ll say it for you. It has been a point of frustration for years. Are there things that you see in the short term that you think you’re going to be able to dig into to help with those transition issues?
Tester: I don’t want to make this sound easier than it is, but it’s making sure that we’re letting the veterans know when they get ready to get out.
I’ve been told many, many times that when somebody is getting out of the service, they don’t want to sit around in meetings, they want to get out and get back to their life and their future outside the military.
The challenge we have is to make sure that whether they like it or not, we’re giving them the information they need, because I think it’ll make the transition to civilian life much, much easier.
Not to oversimplify, but I think it’s more about good communication, making sure that the Defense Department is doing what they need to prepare these guys for civilian life, and making sure that VA is there when they get out of the military.
MT: On the appropriation side, should we expect a Defense Department budget cut this year? Do you have an idea for a top line at this point?
Tester: Not at this point. And I will tell you that the top line may not be as important as how the money is spent. I think that’s what’s really important here is making sure that needs are met and making sure that people are held accountable on how the money is spent.
If [the budget total] needs to be plussed up, I wouldn’t be opposed to that. And if we have programs that have outlived their usefulness, I’m not opposed to cutting either. So I think it’s about how the money is spent, and making sure this country is secure.
MT: What about the personnel side of the budget? Do you have any ideas about priorities you’re going to be looking at with personnel in mind?
Tester: Look, I’m going to be listening to [Defense Secretary Lloyd] Austin and [Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark] Milley and others about where the military needs to be from a right size standpoint. They’re the folks who really know this, so we’ll ask them the tough questions.
We’ll make them justify what they need. But then we’ll give them the tools they need to be able to recruit the people they need.
In addition to that, we’re making sure the Guard and reserve components are dealt with in a fair way. Look at what we’ve got here in Washington, D.C., with the Guardsmen out here, protecting us and the Capitol grounds. That’s important work.
And we have used the Guards and Reserve over the last 20 years in kind of a different way than we’ve used them in the past. Making sure that they’re taken care of through this defense budget is also very important.
MT: Are you thinking of specific hearings just on Guard and reserve issues?
Tester: I think so. I think it’s going to be necessary to make sure we get their leadership in and talk about their challenges, and about what they’re seeing in the future, and how we can help help support them.
MT: With that group, there has been a long-standing issue with which mobilizations qualify for education benefits and medical benefits. You’ve been a proponent of trying to expand that. Do you think that now you’ll be able to move those ideas along?
Tester: I certainly hope so. I mean, they’re incredibly valuable to this country. They’re incredibly valuable to their states, and I think they’re just an important part of our military. Like I said, they’re used differently than they used to be, and we need to take that into account.
MT: Give me your first impressions of new VA Secretary Denis McDonough.
Tester: First of all, I think Denis McDonough is the person that we need right now in the VA, because he is a manager. With the electronic health records and issues around implementing the John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Care Act, the Deborah Sampson Act and others, I think he’s the right person to get that done.
I had a number of constructive conversations with Secretary McDonough through the confirmation process. I knew him when he was Chief of Staff for President [Barack] Obama. He’s certainly a smart guy. He certainly is somebody that works his tail off, and certainly somebody who is committed to veterans. So I think he’s going to be good.
I will also tell you, I’m going to hold him accountable, just as I have other secretaries of the VA.
MT: You mentioned mental health, dealing with suicide and suicide prevention. Where do you see Congress going on this now?
Tester: I also think what compounds the mental health problems is the pandemic, because isolation increases mental health problems.
Congress has done a good job of passing [bills]. Now it’s up to make sure that the VA implements them. Passing it is only half of it, maybe less than half. Getting it implemented is really where the rubber meets the road. We’ll be working in a bipartisan way to make sure that VA implements that bill and gets those resources out there to veterans.
I think that’s what we’re looking for, and then we’re going to be continuing to talk to our veteran service organizations and veterans out there that are advocating, and mental health groups about what further we can do to address this issue of mental health amongst our military and our veterans.
MT: I know one of the struggle points for VA in the pandemic so far has been rural veterans and getting vaccines out to them. Obviously, Montana is your state. How do you feel VA has done not just on the pandemic, but as a whole is addressing the issue of rural vets?
Tester: I think the challenge with rural veterans, especially if you consider that Alaska and Montana are one and two per capita in veterans that live in our state, and those are both very rural states, I think it makes that challenge very, very real.
I think that the VA has done some pretty good work, honestly, I mean, we’ve put a lot of community based outpatient clinics out there. In Montana, they’ve got a pilot project on delivering vaccines with airplanes to hard to reach areas. And that project has been very successful ...
Part of this is making sure we’ve got good broadband out there, get into these people’s homes that are a long ways away from the clinics. That is going to be very essential. And I know there’s a lot of talk here in the United States Senate about putting some money into laying down some broadband, I think we’re probably going to get some people opened up so that they can get their health care [remotely].
When people get in a crisis, they can’t drive an hour, an hour and a half or two hours to see a professional. But if they can get a hold of that mental health professional on their computer in their office or in their basement, then that can really solve a lot of problems, save a lot of lives.
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.