Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said he’s confident his agency will get the funding it needs despite a barrage of tough questioning from GOP lawmakers concerned over the White House’s proposed boost for the department next year.
“The questions are natural and understandable,” he told reporters on Thursday, in a press conference following three hours of testimony before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “I’m not going to pre-emptively worry about this. We’re at the start of this process, and we’re going to continue to answer questions forthrightly and completely.”
The Biden administration’s $325 billion budget proposal for fiscal 2024 would represent a 5.4% increase for total department spending over last year, the latest in a long line of substantial boosts for VA programs. In fiscal 2014, the VA budget was $154 billion, less than half of the request for next year.
Republican objections to increased funding for veterans – which usually garners staunch GOP support – foreshadows how nearly all aspects of White House’s proposed federal budget will be raked over in the coming summer months, with partisanship rising just a year away from the 2024 U.S. presidential election.
If lawmakers can’t reach an agreement on a full government funding plan before Oct. 1, it could trigger a partial government shutdown this fall. Most — but not all —VA operations would continue unaffected for several more months, even during such a funding lapse, because a large portion of the department’s budget is approved a year in advance, shielding veterans from some of the fallout of the partisan fiscal fights.
The Biden White House’s VA spending proposal, which is almost 30% higher than the last Trump administration request, was among several concerns voiced by lawmakers at the Thursday hearing, along with plans for dramatic growth in VA infrastructure spending and the department’s toxic exposure fund, meant to cover the costs of new disability benefits approved by Congress last year.
“This budget has far too many gimmicks,” said committee chairman Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., pointing to shifts in some discretionary funding to mandatory spending accounts. “And today’s gimmicks are tomorrow’s headaches.”
Republicans and Democrats also traded political barbs over potential appropriations plans, forecasting funding fights to come in the next few months.
Committee ranking member Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., repeatedly decried rumored deals with Republican leaders “struck to appease extreme MAGA Republicans” that would lock in total federal spending at fiscal 2022 levels. Bost and other GOP members accused him of fear mongering and derailing congressional budget talks from the start.
McDonough dismissed concerns that the administration and Congress may be looking into a radical overhaul of some benefits or health care options in order to help trim the federal deficit, in his comments to reporters.
On Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office released a periodic review of some potential cost-saving measures for military and veterans programs, detailing — but not recommending — moves such as eliminating disability benefits for veterans with higher incomes and further limiting which veterans are eligible for free VA health care.
Combined, the proposals could cut more than $500 billion over the next decade. But the proposals have been unpopular among veterans advocates and lawmakers in the past, and McDonough said his department has not had serious discussions on any of them.
“We don’t think that’s a good idea here at VA,” he said. “Nobody inside VA is talking about it, nobody in the executive branch, and I haven’t heard anything about it from Congress … We’re not going to do it.”
McDonough is expected to testify before several more committees over the next month to discuss the budget, ahead of congressional budget negotiations throughout the summer.
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.