Blumenthal’s veteran’s bill faces competition in Senate committee

WASHINGTON–Sen. Richard Blumenthal testified in favor of his sweeping veterans’ assistance legislation Wednesday, putting it on the radar of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. And the measure got a nod of support from key outside players, including top lobbyists for the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars who testified at Wednesday’s hearing.

But Blumenthal’s bill–which seeks to tackle a wide range of problems affecting veterans, such as high unemployment and homelessness–faces stiff competition on the committee’s crowded agenda. The panel has a raft of other veterans’ bills on its plate–some of which seem to duplicate elements of the Connecticut Democrat’s proposal.

And one key factor in the measure’s fate is whether top Executive Branch officials–leaders at the departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense–endorse it or not. The Veterans’ Affairs officials who testified at today’s hearing focused more on other pending proposals than on Blumenthal’s bill, which was only introduced two weeks ago.

Robert Jesse, a deputy undersecretary for health at the VA, said the agency did not yet have an official position on Blumenthal’s legislation. John McWilliam, an undersecretary for veterans’ employment and training at the Department of Labor, said his agency would defer to the VA and Department of Defense on Blumenthal’s proposal, for the most part.

But McWilliam took issue with one section of the bill–a provision that would require the Labor Secretary to create a comprehensive program providing technical assistance to employers to help veterans who have traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Blumenthal has said the aim of the program should be to make sure private companies have a set of “best practices” for helping those veterans succeed on the job.

McWilliam said that provision was “unnecessary” because the Department of Labor (DOL) already has an initiative, called America’s Heroes at Work, which serves that purpose. He said the program is undergoing a transition in leadership and funding, and said he would work with the committee to see if it “needs further enhancements,” as Blumenthal has suggested.

But Raymond Kelley, the VFW’s legislative director, singled out Blumenthal’s DOL provision as a key element of his bill, which he said would bolster veterans’ services overall. He said by requiring the Labor officials to strengthen assistance to employers, it would improve the job prospects and livelihoods of veterans who suffer from brain injuries or PTSD.

In his written testimony, Kelley also praised Blumenthal’s proposal authorizing a study on ways to help private-sector employers and educational institutions recognize the value of veterans’ military training. Kelley said that “builds on the growing consensus that military skills should have broad recognition in the civilian world.”

Blumenthal’s bill has 16 provisions aimed at making it easier for veterans to find work, homes, health care, mental health counseling and other benefits. It also attempts to “modernize” the Department of Veterans Affairs, by erasing some of the bureaucratic headaches that military personnel face when they go from being active and enlisted to being veterans.

One provision, for example, would lift the cap on enrollment in the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Independent Living program, which helps veterans with severe disabilities live independently and return to work. To address homelessness, the bill calls for raising the per diem allotment to homeless veterans and permanently extending foreclosure protection for service members.

Jeff Steele, assistant director of the American Legion’s Legislative Division, told the Veterans’ Affairs Committee that there’s “much we can approve of” in Blumenthal’s bill, adding that it would help create a more “seamless transition” from active service to the private sector. “This legislation takes needful steps toward making sure military skills and training are translatable into the civilian sector,” he said.

Whether Blumenthal’s legislation will get traction in the committee is unclear. The panel has more than 20 bills on its docket. Some of those addressed the same issues highlighted in Blumenthal’s bill, albeit in more narrow fashion. For example, one bill seeks to address joblessness among veterans by expanding the VA’s ability to fund job training and increasing the scope of rehabilitation programs. Another measure seeks to improve health care services for victims of traumatic brain injury.

Blumenthal said his proposal offers up some “new ideas” that he hopes will get serious consideration. He said that many of the pending proposals, including his own, may get combined and mixed together.

“I have no particular pride of authorship,” he said. “The main point is to achieve the goal. Every one of these issues, whether it’s jobs, homelessness, VA streamlining, or health care, are vitally significant.”

As for the Administration’s position on his legislation, he said he’s working closely with VA and DOD officials to win their support. Asked about McWilliam’s comments, he said Labor officials have privately told him they welcome his proposal because it could strengthen their initiative.

“The more we can support it and bolster it and make it bigger, all the better,” Blumenthal said.