Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald warned this week that House appropriators' plan to trim $1.5 billion off his department's annual budget request will "hurt veterans" if it becomes law.
This is the second consecutive year that House lawmakers have proposed a smaller-than-requested VA budget, albeit still a sizable increase in department spending. It's also the second consecutive year McDonald has called the idea harmful to veterans seeking medical care and benefits.
"It will impede some critical initiatives necessary to transform VA into the high performing organization veterans deserve," he told a crowd at a Center for Strategic and International Studies speech on Wednesday. "We're encouraging Congress to fully fund VA at the level requested."
Last month, the House Committee on Appropriations passed a VA spending plan for fiscal 2017 with nearly $73.5 billion in discretionary spending, which would be an increase of about 3 percent from fiscal 2016 levels.
But White House officials asked for a 5 percent increase, arguing the need for more construction funding and expansion of VA programming. House Republicans have said their funding plan covers enough of those programs while practicing fiscal restraint.
Senate appropriators are working on a different funding measure which would nearly equal the White House request. On Wednesday, McDonald lauded that plan and urged the House to follow suit.
That's what happened last year, when House lawmakers initially trimmed the administration's budget request by several hundred million dollars, only to restore most of it as negotiations with the Senate progressed.
But McDonald's comments about the shortfall hurting veterans became fodder for critics who said the department has failed to fix many of its problems, despite generous annual increases.
If approved by Congress, the VA discretionary budget will equal almost as much as the department's entire budget 10 years ago. Both mandatory and non-mandatory funding totaled $79.5 billion in fiscal 2007, less than half the $163 billion budget finalized for fiscal 2016.
No timetable has been set for when the appropriations bills could reach a full vote in their respective chambers. Lawmakers from both parties have spent recent months sparring over spending caps and budget targets, and are scheduled to take a two-month recess in mid-July to prepare for the November elections.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.