Washington – With hundreds of thousands of American troops poised for combat in Iraq, veterans groups are criticizing a budget plan expected on the House floor this week that would slash Veterans Affairs money by $15 billion in the next decade to help make room for President Bush’s proposed tax cuts.
“Cutting already underfunded veterans’ programs to offset the costs of tax cuts is indefensible and callous,” said Edward R. Heath, national commander of the Disabled American Veterans. “It is unconscionable to cut benefits and services for disabled veterans at a time when we have thousands of our service members in harm’s way.”
The Republican plan, which the House Budget Committee adopted last week on a party-line vote, would chop $467 billion – 1 percent – from mandatory spending programs including the Veterans Affairs Department, Medicare and Medicaid in the next 10 years to offset $1.5 trillion in tax cuts the president proposes in the same period. The proposal also contains major increases in spending for defense programs and homeland security while achieving a balanced federal budget by 2010.
The VA cuts would take place in disability compensation, education benefits, pensions and health care, according to veterans advocacy groups.
When the Budget Committee adopted the budget blueprint last week, committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, said priorities were focused on defense, homeland security and the president’s economic growth plan.
“We are in a time of war, and the No. 1 task before us is protecting Americans,” he said. “I am absolutely committed to providing our men and women in uniform with the resources they need to do their jobs effectively and safely as possible.”
Ronald F. Conley, national commander of the American Legion, argued that veterans’ pensions and disability compensation are part of the costs of using the U.S. military to carry out national policies. The House’s proposed budget “defies common sense,” he said.
“Our nation cannot, in good conscience, commit men and women to battle and reduce the meager, yet well-deserved, compensation for those who are wounded,” Conley said.
A Senate budget plan, also adopted in committee last week, doesn’t call for the cuts but produces a balanced budget in 2013 by using some unrealistic assumptions on spending levels.
Already in the House, leaders are scrambling to find votes for the budget plan after 11 moderate Republicans said they would not vote for it.
Ray Sisk, commander in chief of Veterans of Foreign Wars, said cutting the VA budget even 1 percent would worsen many of the agency’s problems such as a backlog of 200,000 veterans waiting more than six months to see a doctor.
“We cannot expect sick and disabled veterans to wait months for earned health care,” he said. “Equally troubling is that further cuts in funding would cause VA to curb further enrollment or to remove certain veterans from the health-care system altogether.”