Advocates from the veterans community saw two of their top legislative priorities approved in the waning days of the lame-duck congressional session: a new, bigger Veterans Affairs Department budget and advance appropriations for all VA benefits starting next fiscal year.
Those successes come after this summer's massive veterans' reform bill that mandated more private care options for veterans facing lengthy wait times for VA medical appointments and more money to hire doctors, lease space, and find ways to add more care hours for patients.
And 2014 began with veterans advocates succeeding in killing their most hated legislative provision of 2013 — a plan to lower cost-of-living adjustments on military retirees, part of a broader budget balancing package.
"We feel pretty good about what we accomplished," said Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans. "Getting anything done in Washington is a surprise these days. And those were big accomplishments."
DAV had been leading the push for advance appropriations since the 2013 government shutdown, when veterans' GI Bill checks and other benefits were threatened due to a lack of authorized funding.
With a change included in the $1.1 trillion federal spending bill signed into law this week, those fears won't surface again. Like VA medical care accounts, all department benefits will be funded a full year in advance, ensuring that congressional budget fights delays won't disrupt their delivery.
Ian de Planque, deputy director of the American Legion's legislative division, said even more important than the legislation that passed may be the new focus from lawmakers on veterans issues.
"We're starting to talk to a lot more lawmakers outside the traditional [veterans] committees," he said. "After the problems earlier this year, now this is something that jumped up on their radar."
Those problems — care delays and record-keeping cover-ups at dozens of VA facilities — forced the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and brought dozens of lawmakers into the national debate on how to fix the department's shortfalls.
That new knowledge is critical, de Planque said, because VA already has several critical deadlines looming in 2015, including ending the disability benefits backlog and ending veterans homelessness. Success on both those goals will depend on continued pressure from Congress.
And Ray Kelley, legislative director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, noted that there is still a host of advocate-backed legislation that didn't make headway in this session of Congress, either due to legislative gridlock or political distraction.
Veterans groups worked long hours in recent weeks in an attempt to guide the Clay Hunt suicide prevention bill through Congress, but fell short after retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., blocked the measure just days before lawmakers left town.
That measure, along with plans for VA construction reform and expanded Gulf War Illness research, is expected to be reintroduced quickly in the new legislative session next month.
"We still have a lot of work that didn't get done," Kelley said. "So we're already looking ahead. But VA has been in the national spotlight, so our job now is to keep those issues in the light."
The new session of Congress starts Jan. 6. Among the 535 members of the House and Senate are 100 lawmakers with military experience, including 25 who served in Iraq or Afghanistan.