Republican House appropriators on Tuesday unveiled plans for a $320 billion Veterans Affairs budget in fiscal 2024, which amends the department’s controversial Toxic Exposure Fund to allow for easier spending adjustments in the future. Democrats are already calling that another attack on veterans’ benefits.
The move comes just a few weeks after GOP leaders were hammered by Democrats and veterans advocates (including Disabled American Veterans and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) for not including protections for veterans funding, in separate legislation calling for deep cuts in federal spending. The latest move is likely to elevate that political fight again, and cement the veterans budget at the center of partisan fiscal fights on Capitol Hill for months to come.
The appropriations plan — set to be voted on by the Republican controlled House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday — is roughly the same level for veterans benefits and programming that as President Joe Biden requested in his budget plan earlier this year. It would be an increase of almost 6% over current fiscal year funding levels.
Republicans said the plan “honors the country’s commitment to veterans” while also bringing more fiscal responsibility to the department.
But Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and chairwoman of the appropriations committee’s panel on veterans issues, called the plan “a disappointing, deceptive, and potentially devastating bill for our veterans” that “plays right into Republicans’ larger plan to slash government funding.”
At issue is the Toxic Exposures Fund, created as part of the sweeping Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (or PACT Act) last summer. The fund assigns mandatory federal funding to cover the costs of benefits for veterans suffering illnesses from military toxins from things like burn pit smoke and chemical exposure.
Because the fund is mandatory, lawmakers cannot adjust the money in the same way they do for discretionary funds. Veterans groups who lobbied for that said the protection is needed to ensure that veterans benefits aren’t shortchanged by future political fights.
But Republican leaders have said the move creates a host of cost-projection problems for other veterans bills, and unnecessarily runs up VA spending. They also said that the administration has tried to force unrelated spending into the account. Under their appropriations plan, nearly three-fourths of the money for the fund — nearly $15 billion — would be shifted to discretionary funding, where the total can be adjusted annually.
“Veteran victims of burn pits and other toxic exposure were made a promise under the PACT Act — that their care and benefits would be guaranteed,” said retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, senior advisor to VoteVets, said in a statement after the appropriations plan release. “The Republicans in Congress are now proposing we toss that guarantee in the garbage and put funding at risk on an annual basis.”
The appropriations move is likely to have support in the Republican-controlled House but not the Democratic-controlled Senate. A House plan passed last month to limit non-defense federal spending next fiscal year similarly lacks support in the upper chamber of Congress.
That broader spending plan — locking in funding levels at fiscal 2022 levels — drew criticism from Democrats who said the move could threaten veterans programming because the proposed spending cuts were not specified.
By introducing a VA spending bill at roughly the same levels as the president’s request, Republicans muted much of that political attack, although the changes in Toxic Exposure Fund open up a new series of criticisms.
“House Republicans have repeatedly vowed that there will be no cuts to the care and benefits our veterans deserve, and [this] bill delivers on that promise,” House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Kay Granger, R-Texas, said in a statement.
The VA budget plan is the first of a dozen appropriations bills expected to be introduced by the House committee in coming weeks. Most of the rest have been delayed by ongoing negotiations among congressional leaders and the White House over raising the country’s debt ceiling, work that needs to be addressed in the next few weeks.
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.