House lawmakers this week approved plans for a $270 billion Veterans Affairs budget next year as part of a broader package of appropriations bills, leaving open the possibility that the department could have its spending plans for fiscal 2022 finalized early this fall.
The budget measure, which totals more than $770 billion and would fund other agencies such as the Education and Treasury Departments, passed along party lines, 219-208.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. and chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee’s panel on veterans issues, praised the funding plan as including “substantial investments in women’s and mental health, suicide prevention, homelessness assistance, rural health, opioid abuse prevention, and much more.”
Republicans have offered little resistance to the VA funding plan specifically, but have opposed broader budget proposals from President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats as too expensive.
Still, the passage of the VA plan opens the possibility of lawmakers approving a final deal on next year’s VA budget by Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year. Getting those agency budgets finalized before that date has been a rarity in Congress in recent years, forcing lawmakers to pass short-term stopgap measures to avoid partial government shutdowns.
Senate appropriators are expected to vote on their first draft of the VA spending bill on Monday, with an eye towards a full chamber vote sometime in September. That could give lawmakers a few weeks to approve the budgets for VA and several other agencies before Oct. 1.
Agency leaders have complained in recent years that the short-term funding extensions create problems for new program starts and spending adjustments for operations.
But VA leaders are largely insulated from that problem, because Congress for the last decade has approved advance appropriations for the department to minimize the impact of Capitol Hill funding stalemates on VA medical care and benefits delivery.
Last year, as part of the fiscal 2021 budget agreement, Congress approved about $240 billion in funding for the department for fiscal 2022, money that will be available regardless if a full budget deal is reached.
The $270 billion budget plan would be the largest in department history and mark another substantial increase in funding for VA.
In fiscal 2001, the VA budget totaled about $45 billion. By fiscal 2011, it was about $125 billion, almost triple that total. Ten years later, in 2021, the department’s budget was nearly double that again, at $245 billion.
The fiscal 2022 plan calls for a 13.5 percent raise in mental health care spending (to $10.7 billion), a 14.5 percent boost in assistance for veterans facing homelessness ($2.6 billion), and a 12 percent boost in gender-specific care and program support (over $700 million).
During debate this week. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Calif., lobbied successfully to reauthorize $45 million in backing for the Veteran Employment Through Technology Education Courses (VET TEC) program next year.
The courses, launched in 2019 as a five-year pilot program, have proven more popular than expected in recent years, with close to 14,000 applications and 3,000 enrollees this year alone. VA leaders have pushed for even more funding to expand the program in coming years.
Lawmakers also shifted $1 million in planned funding to create a new recruiting program urging military medical personnel leaving active-duty to join VA health care teams.
The overall spending package includes $10.9 billion in military construction spending plans for fiscal 2022, with a big boost in funding ($213 million) for planning and design of future child development centers.
The rest of the Defense Department budget remains stalled in the chamber. House appropriators earlier this month approved more than $700 billion in funding for the military, in line with White House requests for next year.
But Republicans have attacked that figure as too low to adequately react to worldwide threats, while some progressive Democrats have labeled the figure as too high given hefty spending increases for the department in recent years.
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.