June 6, 2007 – House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner (D-Calif.) and the senior Republican on the panel, Rep. Steve Buyer (Ind.), despise each other. Their relationship is so frayed that lawmakers and veterans’ interest groups say it could interfere with the committee’s work.
Lawmakers from both parties have said they find it difficult to attend committee meetings and hearings because Filner and Buyer’s interactions are so tense. It has even made it difficult for some Democratic lawmakers, who might agree with Buyer, to listen to his ideas.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my professional life. It’s just fierce,” one Democratic lawmaker said. “It’s interfered with the agenda and dampens the spirit of those in the room.”
“The relationship between the two is very strained, and that comes out during the meetings and hearings,” the legislative director of Disabled Veterans of America, Joe Violante, said.
The tension between the two men has built over the years, starting when they both began serving on the Veterans Affairs panel upon arriving in Congress in 1992. The relationship became irreparably damaged after Democrats lost control of Congress in 1995. The committee became much more partisan and Buyer and Filner led the charge for their parties’ agendas, according to veterans’ advocates.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman from 2001 to 2004, was able to reduce the level of partisan strife. But after GOP leaders sacked Smith for defying GOP spending limits and elevated Buyer to chairman, the partisanship resumed.
Filner has a reputation for outbursts. Last year, he cursed at a Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman during a news conference on a stolen VA laptop that contained data on millions of veterans. Filner had to fight for the chairmanship; the previous chairman, former Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), backed Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine). Filner reassured the House Democratic Caucus that he would do more leading and less Molotov cocktail-throwing; he won a 112-69 vote to become the chairman.
By many accounts, Filner has lived up to his word.
“Filner has stuck to what he’s said,” the legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Dennis Cullinan, said. “There have been any number of opportunities where he could have lost his temper.”
Buyer, who served as an Army lawyer during the Gulf War, also is known for being edgy and aggressive. Upon losing the gavel, he immediately criticized Filner’s leadership, including the speed with which he organized the committee.
Buyer declined to comment for this story.
With the Democrats back in control, Filner said Buyer is “in denial,” adding, “He’s not talked to me in a collegial way. He makes demands and goes to the press.”
The most recent eruption between the two men occurred two weeks ago over whether to rename a medical center in Albuquerque, N.M., after a Korean War hero. Raymond G. Murphy, who died in April, won the Medal of Honor in the Korean War and worked for the Veterans Affairs Department in Albuquerque for 23 years.
Congress can rename a VA facility if the honoree meets certain requirements. In this case, New Mexico’s congressional delegation and Gov. Bill Richardson (D) support the change.
Filner said Buyer has tried to circumvent the regular process to help Rep. Heather Wilson (N.M.), a vulnerable Republican who survived a stiff challenge from Democrats in last year’s midterm election.
“It’s a very cynical use of a war hero for political ends. They want to help Wilson,” Filner said.
On the House floor last month, Buyer challenged Filner to offer a bill to rename the VA facility on the suspension calendar, where it would need a two-thirds majority to pass. Filner ignored Buyer, who voiced his frustration.
“The American public gets to see the abuse that I have to deal with,” Buyer said on the House floor.
The House GOP Conference criticized Democrats in a press release entitled “House Dems Won’t Pass Bill Naming Veterans Hospital After Medal of Honor Recipient.”
Buyer has tried to stymie Filner’s use of procedural measures. Earlier this year, Buyer attempted to attach a veterans’ funding amendment to a bill that would affect the Small Business Administration. The Rules Committee told Buyer his amendment was not germane. He proceeded to try to rally the veterans’ service organizations to support a motion to recommit. In the end, Buyer never got his vote and the SBA bill passed.
“It gets testy and uncomfortable for everyone else,” the legislative director of the American Legion, Steve Robertson, said. “When the day is done, the negotiations take place behind closed doors. I see they’re reaching consensus.”
All of the veterans’ pressure groups praised Filner’s management, giving him credit for the level of oversight and number of bills passed. Still, all agreed it would be better for veterans if Filner and Buyer could get along.
“I wish both would bury the hatchet,” Violante said, “and get on with taking care of veterans.”