Congress won’t start dealing with the federal budget again in earnest until after the holidays, but Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough isn’t waiting until then to sound the alarm on the issue.
In a press call with reporters last week, McDonough called reports of a possible full-year budget extension for federal agencies a looming disaster for veterans care, veterans benefits and department operations.
“It would have a significant negative impact,” he said.
“The Veterans Health Administration budget would be shorted $941 million in community care funds. … The construction account would be $458 million below the president’s request, causing delays and cost increases. And the Veterans Benefits Administration would be $259 million lower, which would prevent us from hiring and training staff.”
The new fiscal year for the federal government began Oct. 1 without a new budget adopted by Congress. Lawmakers twice have extended fiscal 2021 spending levels into the new fiscal year, with those authorities set to end in mid-February.
House and Senate leaders will have to reach a new budget extension or negotiate a full-year budget plan by then in order to avoid a partial government shutdown.
But McDonough — along with other administration officials — are warning that another budget extension will hurt federal operations and that lawmakers should finalize plans for a full-year spending deal instead.
“It’s a source of concern for me and it is occupying a good amount of my time right now,” McDonough said. “This is a natural time, as we come to the end of the calendar year, to be thinking ahead about the kinds of things that will be major priorities for us when we flip the calendar, and this [budget problem] is on my mind.”
The White House has proposed $270 billion for VA operations and benefits in fiscal 2022, up about 12 percent from last year. Plans call for a 13.5% raise in mental health care spending (to $10.7 billion), a 14.5% boost in homelessness prevention ($2.6 billion), and a 12% boost in gender-specific care programs (over $700 million).
All of those increases have been on hold for the last three months as department officials await a new budget. The budget extensions have locked them in at fiscal 2021 spending levels, without the planned plus-ups for those programs.
Without those increases “I can’t rule out impacts on individual veterans’ lives,” McDonough said.
“We’ll obviously work really hard to mitigate that,” he said. “But, especially in the context of the ongoing pandemic, I’d hate to have to make these sets of balancing decisions.”
The VA budget proposal has not faced specific opposition from either party on Capitol Hill, but has been stalled because of broader budget fights among Democrats and Republicans.
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a similar statement on the potential danger of a full year continuing resolution, saying it could hurt personnel support services and readiness initiatives.
Lawmakers are expected to resume their budget deliberations when they return to Capitol Hill in January.
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.