August 29, 2014

VA Plan in Senate Doesn’t Fit ‘Emergency’ Designation

  • Defense spending accounts for roughly half of the portion of the budget referred to as discretionary spending, which is determined through the annual...

As the backlog scandal at Veterans Affairs (VA) health facilities continues to unfold, a plan that Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) agreed to last week would authorize “emergency” spending for more VA facilities, additional staff and the use of some private doctors.

Sponsors said their plan would cost nearly $2 billion. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised to bring the legislation to the Senate floor quickly. The House passed legislation with some similar reform provisions last month but without increased spending.

Unfortunately, the plan developed last week in the Senate did not specify how the new spending would be paid for. To exceed discretionary spending caps, it would authorize emergency spending that would have to be approved in subsequent appropriations legislation.

However, the traditional understanding has been that the emergency designation is for spending that is necessary, sudden, urgent, unexpected and temporary. The additional spending in the Senate plan, while addressing serious problems, does not fit that criteria.

The VA has struggled to provide effective and timely health care services. While some lawmakers, including Sanders, say the VA suffers from inadequate funding, it also faces management and structural challenges that more funding will not automatically resolve.

Lawmakers should follow standard budget procedure and work within the spending caps they set into law. They have many options to offset proposed new spending, including ending VA enrollment for high-income veterans with no service-related injuries. Another option: cuts to mandatory spending.

Working within the caps would force Congress to make decisions on how to best serve veterans without further weakening the country’s fiscal standing.