Report From Washington

I arrived in Washington DC on November 9 and the Congress returned on November 14. Immediately prior to the trip I was notified that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) had indicated they would score House Concurrent Resolutions 161/Senate Concurrent Resolution 51. These resolutions are non-binding "sense of the Congress" regulations that should never be assigned a cost. In this particular case, the Resolutions would state that it was the sense of Congress that the exposure presumption provisions of the Agent Orange Act of 1991 included the bays, harbors and territorial seas of the Republic of Vietnam. This would clarify the intent of Congress and allow us to use this clarification in our pending court case seeking review of the VA policy denying sea service Vietnam veterans their Agent Orange benefits. I had briefed House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller last September and he promised me that he would take a position on the Resolution. As of Wednesday afternoon he had not responded.

We were preparing to "hotline" the resolutions, but a Senator asked the Committee to confirm from CBO that there would be no cost involved. We had previously been told informally by CBO that they would assign a zero cost. Once the Committee request was made, however, the CBO felt that they had to consult with the VA. The VA argued that they "might" change their mind based on the Resolution so that it was appropriate to assign a score. In this case, the score would be $1.1 billion. That would bring the Resolution under the provisions of the Pay As You Go Act that requires an offset. Although we are working on an offset, we have some opposition to our proposed offset from Senators in the minority.

In a previous visit, I had discussed these Resolutions with the staff of the members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. This week I concentrated on members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. This included personal meetings with Cong Tim Walz D-MN, Gus Bilarakis R-FL, Dan Benishek R-MI, Tim Huelskamp R-KS, Ann Kuster D-NH and Mike Bost R-IL. I also had the opportunity to chat informally with Cong Phil Roe R-TN and Ralph Abraham R-LA. There was general support and sympathy for the Resolution and for the plight of the Blue Water Navy veterans, but the CBO action seemed to be a game changer that allowed the VA to once again block benefits for the Blue Water Navy veterans.

On Wednesday afternoon, the picture began to change. I met in a consolidated meeting with staff members from Speaker Paul Ryan, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise. They were not only sympathetic to our mission but expressed strong concern at the CBO action. Since this Resolution is non-binding, it should not be scored. There was concern that this could set a precedent that affects future Resolutions as well as ours. I am hopeful that the House leadership will address ths action, on our behalf, with CBO.

I was heartened by the leadership's interest in this and other veterans issues They informed me that veterans matters will be a priority of the new Administration and I was told that if the Resolution/Bill did not pass this Congress they wanted to see it again next year and they wanted to see it early.

In talking with the members of the Veterans Affairs Committee, all expressed an interest in working with Military-Veterans Advocacy next Congress. Although we do not know who will be the Chairman/Ranking Member, all of the contenders for those posts stated that they would look forward to hearing our proposals and views.

As well as the Blue Water Navy issue, I met with the Center for Prosecutorial Integrity to discuss our joint approach on military justice reform. I also met with people from the Veterans Pro Bono Consortium and the Federal Bar Association to discuss appellate reform that will enhance the right of veterans rather than strip away their due process rights. For part of the week, I was also accompanied by Vince Diem from "Operation Stand Together," a Fort McClellan veteran who is trying to unite all toxic exposure issues into a single omnibus bill. Operation Stand Together will be holding a rally on the National Mall on May 20, 2017. Vince's efforts are becoming more and more critical because it appears that the Toxic Exposure Research Act will not pass this year.

On a personal note, I was honored and touched by the grass-roots effort to promote me as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Over 600 veterans and their supporters have joined the Facebook page Irrespective of whether that is a success or not, Military-Veterans Advocacy will continue and I personally will continue to work hard to reform the VA and to fight for veterans.

John B. Wells
Commander USN (Retired)
Executive Director
Military-Veterans Advocacy, Inc.