Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs Hearing: Lots Of Talk About Increased Benefits, But Can the VA Pull It Off?

The Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs hearing focused on the various pieces of pending legislation regarding veterans' benefits. The legislation discussed in the hearing consisted of many different veterans' benefits issues, and the speakers present included several senators, a panel from the Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA), and a panel of representatives from various veterans' service organizations.

The senators who spoke at the hearing — including Chairman Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-N.C.), and Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Ak.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Mark Begich (D-Ak.), John Boozman (R-Ariz.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) — presented veterans' benefits legislation that they each sponsored. They promoted the Spouses of Heroes Education Act, which would give military spouses the same education benefits as their children; the Veterans Equipped for Success Act, which would provide wage subsidies to employers who employ veterans and require the VA to provide career transition services; the Accountability for Veterans Act, which would increase the rate at which the VA obtains the records it needs from other federal agencies in order to process benefits claims; the Survivor Benefits Improvement Act, which would improve benefits provided to surviving spouses; the Veterans' Paralympic Act, which would authorize the VA to provide assistance to the United States Paralympics, Inc.; and the GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act, which would require public higher education institutions to provide veterans with in-state tuition rates.

However, the bills mentioned during the hearing that are most relevant to civil rights seek equal treatment for Filipino veterans who fought during World War II, Hmong veterans who fought during the Vietnam War, and spouses of military personnel in same-sex marriages.

During WWII, approximately 250,000 Filipinos fought with U.S. troops and were promised benefits like those given to American soldiers, and for decades, they and their families have been denied these benefits. Introduced by Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hi.), the Filipino Veterans Fairness Act would seek to amend this disparity, as many WWII veterans are passing away without properly being recognized for their service.

Another bill mentioned in the hearing seeks equal rights for Hmong veterans who fought during the Vietnam War. During the war, Laotian and Hmong soldiers served in what is sometimes called the "U.S. Secret Army." However, when General Vang Pao, who the CIA recruited to command guerrillas in Laos during the war, passed away in California in 2011, the Army denied his family's proposal to bury him in Arlington National Cemetery. The Lao and Hmong Veterans' Burial Honor Bill, introduced by Senator Murkowski, would treat Hmong veterans like other veterans who served the U.S., enabling them to be buried in our country's national cemeteries.

A third bill discussed in the hearing seeks equal rights for same-sex military spouses. The Charlie Morgan Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act would change the definition of spouse for purposes of military personnel policies and veterans' benefits so that it would include same-sex spouses of military personnel and veterans. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who along with Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced the bill, spoke briefly about the bill's content and told the story of the bill's namesake, Charlie Morgan, an officer who, after discovering that she had breast cancer, advocated and testified for her same-sex partner and daughter to receive benefits that a non-LGBT family would.

After the senators delivered their statements about pending benefits legislation, a panel from the Department of Veterans' Affairs and a panel of representatives from veterans' service organizations presented their views regarding the legislation. Curtis L. Coy, the deputy undersecretary for Economic Opportunity of the Veterans Benefits Administration supported some of the pending veterans' benefits legislation but also highlighted legal and practical difficulties for some of the proposals. The other panelists from the VA did the same. However, the veterans' service organizations, including the Disabled American Veterans, The American Legion, the Military Officers Association of America, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, were largely in support of the pending veterans' benefits legislation. The main point of contention between the senators, representatives from the VA, and the veterans' service organization was the matter of whether backlog is being reduced; the VA announced that the amount of time that veterans wait to receive benefits is decreasing, but the senators — especially Chairman Sanders and Senator Blumenthal — seemed skeptical of this claim and proceeded to question the representatives from the VA. However, discussions throughout the hearing were largely bipartisan and there was minimal contention regarding the civil rights-related pending veterans' benefits legislation.