Sequestration Cuts ‘Unclear’ for VA
(Bryant Jordan) Officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs think they would be safe from automatic, across-the-board budget reductions set to take effect in January. But they aren’t positive.
A VA spokesman said a provision spelling out exemptions appears “at first blush” to be clear when it states: “All programs administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
“But then as I read, I start to nit-pick the words, “Veterans Programs” (vs. the department),” and it is less clear, VA spokesman Randal Noller said in an email.
This kind of uncertainty is plaguing official Washington in the run-up to the onset of “sequestration,” the automatic reduction in planned budget growth set to take effect across the government on Jan. 2. Agencies like the VA, its vendors, dependents and others can’t be certain about exactly what would happen if the scenario, intended to be so terrible it spurred lawmakers to compromise, actually came to pass.
According to Noller and White House spokesman Shin Inouye, the Office of Management and Budget is the department that will decide whether the law exempts the VA from cuts.
But OMB is not talking.
“We have made it clear that we believe that the sequester is, by design, bad policy,” OMB spokeswoman Moira Mack said in an email. “Congress should do its job and pass a balanced plan for deficit reduction as it was charged to pass under the Budget Control Act … Should it get to a point where it appears that Congress will not do its job and the sequester may take effect, OMB will work with agencies regarding planning, but right now it is time to focus on enacting the balanced framework proposed in the president’s budget.“
The VA did not respond when asked if it has already asked for a ruling or interpretation of the law, though Mack said OMB hasn’t issued any guidance on what will happen if sequestration kicks in.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has remarked several times on his frustration at not getting the White House or OMB to make a call one way or the other on the question.
The administration’s inability to make a decision, or to state publicly what it may already have decided, spurred Miller in February to introduce a bill to remove the suspense once and for all. H.R. 3895 would definitively exempt VA from sequestration.
“If the president isn’t going to give us any clarity on this issue, my bill will,” Miller wrote in an op-ed for Military.com on Feb. 8. That legislation is now in committee.
Miller said in the same column that he hoped the lack of clarity was not merely the administration playing politics.
Similar charges were made last summer when the debt ceiling battle was raging on Capitol Hill. Then, the administration said it did not know whether a possible government shutdown over failure to raise the debt ceiling would mean troops wouldn’t be paid.
Ray Kelley, legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he believes there were some “fear tactics” used last year, though there was also some truth behind them. There likely would have been checks for troops in the first month of a shutdown, he said, but it’s possible there would have been problems after that.
He wouldn’t characterize the general lack of clarity on sequestration as a scare tactic. He said there really is some confusion over application of the law because the sequestration bill is rooted in a 1985 law that mandated cuts or caps across all departments.
“Unfortunately, nobody knows anything,” he said. “The administration has told us directly — our commander in chief was at the White House and they said ‘we don’t’ want the VA to fall under sequestration.’ ”
VFW has gotten the same message from the VA and every member of Congress it has met with, he said.
“But nobody will make a ruling,” he said.