May 12, 2023
KFF Health News: Republicans Vow Not to Cut Veterans’ Benefits. But the Legislation Suggests otherwise.
In addressing the impact of the GOP House debt ceiling bill on veteran programs, “I’m serious that we’re not cutting veterans, and I mean it.”
– Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, in a speech in the House of Representatives on April 26.
House Republicans have set themselves a difficult, if not impossible, task in trying to use a showdown over the nation’s debt limit to reduce federal spending to what it was in 2022.
Reduce to those budget levels require cutting 8% or 9% of the discretionary program side of the ledgerwhich excludes entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. Spending on those programs is required by law. Other expenses are dictated annually by Congressional appropriations. The latter is up for debate here.
However, House Republicans tried to thread the needle with the Law of Limit, Savings, and Growth, which narrowly passed the House on April 26. Its backers say the measure would address the debt ceiling while implementing “common sense spending reforms.” The House GOP leadership has promised to save programs that are popular with Republican voters, such as the defense budget and veterans’ health care.
Democrats pounced on these potential cuts, especially those that would affect veterans. Their talking points appeared to infuriate Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. On the floor of the House, he drew a line in the sand.
“I am serious that we are not eliminating veterans, and I mean it,” Bost said. “The White House and Democrats know we can get our fiscal house in order while making sure our service members and veterans are cared for, and yet, regardless of the shock of their words, they continue to tell lies about how the House Republicans are cutting veterans’ benefits.”
With such an unequivocal statement, we wonder if Bost was right. Can the Republican plan slash federal spending without cutting funding for veteran programs?
To fully understand this, one must examine two things: the budget projections that suggest the GOP plan would result in cuts to veterans’ programs, and what is laid out in the legislation.
Digging into the numbers
Democrats and agencies within the Biden administration, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, scrutinized the GOP bill and did their own math to determine budget estimates.
Because the bill is primarily a list of general spending categories, the estimates reflect flat cuts to discretionary spending. And, because there is no specific language in the measure passed by the House to waive support for veteran programs, VA assumed a total cut of 22% for tax year 2024 compared to 2023 funding and reductions. estimated up to $29.7 billion.
That could translate into 13 million fewer veterans’ health care appointments and significant cuts in benefit payments, staffing and clinic construction, according to the agency.
Bost’s communications director, Kathleen McCarthy, said, however, that Democrats are deliberately assuming the cuts will be applied evenly, pointing to public statements by Republican leaders who have insisted that veterans be spared.
“We make sure our veterans and our service members are well cared for,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. said in a speech on the New York Stock Exchange last month.
“We will provide for our national defense, take care of veterans and secure our border, all while reducing overall spending,” said House Appropriations Committee Chair Kay Granger (R-Texas). said when the Republicans unveiled your plan
But delivering on that promise would require even deeper cuts to other programs.
Of the discretionary budget of $1.7 trillion spent in 2022, a Congressional Budget Office analysis published in March found that $113 billion went to certain veteran benefits and $751 billion covered defense.
Protecting the defense and veterans programs would force Republicans to focus all cuts on the remaining discretionary budget, which the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says would equate to cuts of 23%, an amount similar to the administration’s estimate.
Why is this discussion important?
Veterans funding has become one of the most hotly contested topics in the debt discussion.
The White House tweeted about the Republican cuts to veterans, prompting an angry response from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) echoed Bost’s claim at a hearing Thursday, accusing Democrats of “lies.” Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) responded that House Republicans voted against democratic amendments that would have explicitly exempted veterans.
The Republican Party could also face opposition within its ranks. To achieve their goals without hurting veterans, House Republicans would have to find other reductions supported by almost the entire caucus. Opposition by five or more members would condemn the legislation.
The situation is particularly uncertain because certain Republicans oppose cutting some of the programs that are likely to be targeted, such as projects in their districts, and other Republicans favor even deeper cuts.
More than 20 veteran groups have signed a letter oppose the republican plan.
The nation’s largest veterans’ organizations have said they will not take a position on the legislation to avoid the appearance of partisanship. But representatives of some of those groups said that while they believe Republican leaders really want to protect veterans, they understand it’s hard for such a closely divided body to give any guarantees.
“Mike Bost and the leadership may not want to remove the veterans, but they may have to acquiesce to one or two or three or more of their members to get the thing done,” said Patrick Murray, director of the legislative service. for Veterans of Foreign Wars, referring to raising the debt ceiling while cutting spending.
Although other large veterans groups declined to comment on the dossier, the representatives highlighted possible cuts to programs they see as worthwhile and that some lawmakers have declared unnecessary or wasteful.
“We’ve heard people say they’re not going to cut spending, but then we’ve heard people say they’re going to cut unnecessary spending,” Murray said. “Well, that’s subjective.”
Another potential landmine
Veterans’ organizations are also concerned about a possible rollback of the historic and costly Honoring Our PACT Act, which provides care and remediation for veterans exposed to toxic substances abroad. The law did not go into effect until this year.
Republican lawmakers say they can make the numbers work to preserve the law.
But the House-passed debt limit measure specifically calls for a significant cut, as noted by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. GOP bill rescinds any unspent spending funding approved in bills on covid-19 relief, including funding for veterans. When Bost wrote to the VA in late March asking about the unspent covid money, his office estimated some $4.5 billion was at stake.
DeLauro, denouncing the GOP bill and apparently using more recent numbers, said the rescission would be closer to $2 billion.
“That’s a direct cut to ‘we’ll pick that up,’” Murray said.
Bost’s office held firm to its side of the line in the sand, suggesting that the money, once rescinded, could be repurposed for different veterans’ programs, but noted that would be up to the appropriators.
Bost claimed that Republicans were not cutting veterans’ benefits even as the language of his bill to raise the nation’s debt ceiling would reduce all discretionary spending.
Crafting a small budget that saves veterans is no easy task. In particular, VA represents one of the biggest pieces of the pie in terms of discretionary spending, and no language was included in the House-passed Limit, Save and Grow Act to specifically protect it.
The House GOP plan includes a specific budget recalculation for unspent covid relief funds. That translates to $2 billion coming from the VA. While Congress could restore that money in the future, and it’s a relatively small portion of the VA budget, it would result in reduced spending for veterans as-is.
House Republicans like Bost have repeatedly said they intend to protect this key constituency. But so far, such protections aren’t apparent on paper.
We rate Bost’s statement as mostly false.
Original publication date: May 9, 2023
KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces detailed journalism on health issues and is one of the main operating programs of KFF, an independent source of research, polling and health policy journalism. learn more about KFF.