Representative Steve Buyer (R-IN) is Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs (HCVA). Buyer ascended to that powerful position after Republican Party politics led to the unceremonious ouster of Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) earlier this year. Smiths fall from grace was so complete that he not only lost the Chair but was taken off the Committee.
Rep. Smith had parted company with the Republican hierarchy on the issue of veterans benefits. Smith was an outspoken veterans advocate and had sought increases in funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare budget.
Not so with Rep. Buyer. Buyer is known in the Republican Party as a team-player who does not stray from the Party line. In the veterans community, Buyer is known as an attack dog who tenaciously resists any effort to fully fund VA healthcare.
For almost two days this seemingly little news story went unnoticed. Then the firestorm struck.
Veterans groups realized that Rep. Buyer was trying to pull a fast one with their annual VA budget testimony. For 55 years veterans groups, including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and others, have come to Capitol Hill in March to testify before a JOINT SESSION of the HCVA and Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs (SCVA).
But, there is a nasty political side to Rep. Buyers decision. By moving the testimony from March back to February, veterans groups come to the table with only part of the information they need to adequately make recommendations on the VA budget.
During the Joint Committee hearings held in March, veterans groups have had the VAs budget request AND the White Houses response to that request (generally a lower dollar amount). And, there would be enough time to analyze both sets of figures and give testimony in the best interest of veterans.
With the single Committee hearing moved to February, the veterans groups would have to outline their VA budget priorities at the SAME TIME the White House figures are released. There wouldnt be time to go through the White Houses VA budget numbers and come up with a response.
Veterans groups dismissed Rep. Buyers contention that the February hearings would give them greater influence on the VAs budget. They claim Buyer is seeking to avoid the public-relations nightmare of having angry veterans groups blasting the White House. Some people dont want to be criticized for being deficient, said Richard Fuller, legislative director for the PVA.
This move is Rep. Buyers way of paying back the White House for his Chair on the HCVA. With February hearings, veterans groups would not be able to criticize the low dollar figure offered by the White House for the VA budget. Rep Buyer is doing his job by protecting the White House from criticism by veterans groups who have become increasingly vocal about the Bush Administrations underfunding of the VA.
On Thursday, VA Secretary Jim Nicholson announced that the VA was canceling the review of 72,000 Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) claims that were granted to veterans, giving them compensation for a 100 per cent disability. The VA had looked to lower or deny PTSD benefits based on faulty record-keeping on their part.
There was overwhelming bi-partisan praise for the VAs decision to stop the review. Senators and Representatives issued press releases and held news conferences on the eve of Veterans Day to let veterans know they stood beside them and agreed with the VAs decision.