A bill past due

Members of Congress returned to their home states and districts throughout America Nov. 3-4, to pay tribute to the men and women who have served our nation in uniform.

They stood among aging veterans whose blood was spilled across the shores of Iwo Jima and Omaha Beach. They looked into the eyes of men who nearly froze to death at the Chosin Reservoir.

They stood behind podiums at war memorials across the land and addressed crowds of men and women — some in wheelchairs, some with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury — who left part of themselves forever in the jungles and deserts of places like Vietnam, Grenada, Beirut, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

These top elected officials brought good news to the veterans they represent. But the news came with a catch.

First, the good news. Both houses of Congress overwhelmingly passed the greatest budget increase in history this past summer for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The Senate vote was 92-1. The House vote was 409-2.

The appropriations committees in both houses gave the budget a green light, and President Bush said he would sign it, even though the $87.7 billion total commitment exceeded his own request for VA by $3.6 billion.

Congress did pass a continuing resolution that allows VA to operate on the 2007 budget and they did add $2.9 billion.

This is good news. However, a clean appropriations bill would have been the right thing to do. The 2008 fiscal budget year began Oct. 1, and this historic VA budget still was tangled up in Washington, not yet signed, by Veterans Day.

A top congressional leader personally promised me that the funding measure would be passed by then. But it wasn't. And so, as elected officials spoke of their legislative accomplishments before hometown veteran constituents, VA doctors, nurses, and administrators everywhere were once again trying to figure out how to treat a growing number of patients with a stagnant amount of resources.

Long awaited construction projects at VA hospitals remain tabled. Waiting times for appointments continue to expand. VA hospitals in over-burdened communities are turning away veterans and sending them elsewhere. Greatly needed mental health counselors are not yet hired. Undecided VA benefits claims continue to balloon, to nearly half a million. This is all because of the failure of Congress to pass the 2008 budget.

What's holding it up? Honestly, that's what the American Legion and veterans across this country would like to know. Since the VA budget breezed through Congress last summer, with a promise of support from the White House, there have been efforts to latch other unrelated spending measures to it, creating one big omnibus bill.

Why an omnibus bill? Because while Congress added the much needed $3.6 billion, the administration had said that the money needed to be offset from another appropriations bill.

In this questionable strategy, America's sick, disabled, and veterans who deserve benefits — from the "greatest generation" of World War II to the "newest greatest generation" of the global war on terrorism — would be asked to carry on their backs the financial burdens of other federal programs that have nothing to do with the ongoing cost of war, or with the debt a grateful nation owes to those who put their lives on the line for it.

This holdup must end now. The past-due VA appropriations bill for 2008 must be dislodged immediately, on its own, with nothing more clinging to its back than appreciation, respect, and dignity for the men and women our nation honored on Veterans Day.

— Marty Conatser

National Commander

American Legion

Champaign, Ill