WASHINGTON — House lawmakers on Monday advanced plans to create a new branch of Veterans Affairs operations focused on economic opportunity, a move that advocates say could better highlight employment and education programs at the department.

Veterans advocates have pushed for the new economic opportunity administration in recent months amid concerns that the benefits administration is too overwhelmed with disability compensation and pension claims to focus on education programs, post-military jobs efforts and a host of other resources.

The new agency would be stood up beside the department’s three existing administrations — the Veterans Health Administration, the Veterans Benefits Administration and the National Cemetery Administration — and lead by an under secretary “charged with administering the many benefits available to veterans beyond disability claims and pensions.”

“The fourth administration is not more bureaucracy, but a focus on the education benefits and transition as veterans,” House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said before Monday’s vote. “I think it's one of the most critical things we do.

“A seamless transition from active duty to an active job will help reduce veteran depression, suicide, dependence, among other things.”

The proposal — attached to new rules on veterans medical foster homes — passed through the House on a voice vote, without opposition.

The legislation caps the total number of full-time employees for the new administration at current VBA staffing levels, with the goal of pulling those existing roles within that agency into a different management structure to highlight their work.

To pay for costs of the new administration stand up, the legislation authorizes a temporary fee on refinancing VA home loans.

Along with the fourth administration legislation, the House this week sent eight other veterans and military measures to the Senate for consideration. They include:

  • Legislation allowing troops to cancel their television and Internet access contracts while deployed;
  • Legislation to ease rules regarding recruiting of veterans into VA jobs, and to establish new training programs for those employees;
  • Legislation removing the 12-year time limit for veterans with service-connected disabilities to participate in vocational rehabilitation programs;
  • Legislation creating a three-year pilot program at five VA medical centers to provide undergraduate students with new clinical experience.

No timetable has been set for when any of the measures may be considered in the Senate. House lawmakers are wrapping up their summer session this week, but Senate officials are expected to work through most of August, mainly on confirmation of White House agency nominees.

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.

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