There is an unwritten but widely known rule in the modern political era: Don’t talk about taking money away from veterans. Even as Republicans and Democrats fight over the minutiae of highway funding, carbon taxes, and corn subsidies, they usually agree that vets deserve the best health care and disability benefits Uncle Sam can muster—and more often than not find the dollars to pay for it. Stiffing veterans, they realize, would be wildly unpopular.
Which is why Rep. Michele Bachmann created quite a stir when she suggested slashing $4.5 billion from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Her proposal—which was part of a $400 billion spending-cut strategy to avoid raising the debt ceiling—was to freeze funding for health care and cut disability payments for vets who also collect from Social Security.
Bachmann’s plan drew fire from many quarters, most notably from Sen. Patty Murray, the new chairwoman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. When I talked with Murray, she had little patience for Bachmann or anyone else that would slice the VA’s funding.
“That injures, I think, our country… because these men and women have paid a tremendous price,” said the Washington state Democrat. “Their families have been left at home without a dad or mom for months at a time. They’ve struggled economically. They’ve seen horrific things, and we can’t just abandon them when they get home. Our country asked them to go. We said fight for us. Protect us. Be there for us. We owe them something.”
Bachmann’s proposal would affect about 132,000 veterans who receive disability payments from both the VA and Social Security. There is a cap on how much an individual can collect from multiple sources, but disability payments to veterans don't count toward this limit. Proponents say vets deserve to "double dip" because of their sacrifice, and that forcing them to live under the cap would unfairly reduce their incomes.
Bachmann eventually relented and scrubbed the VA cutbacks from her proposal. (Her office didn’t respond to requests for comment, but the Minnesota Republican noted on her website that idea had “received a lot of attention” and she decided to back off.)
Murray, the panel’s first female chairwoman, knows full well that the mushrooming national deficit is dominating the political calculus these days. If there was any question that veterans might have to sacrifice to help rein in spending, it was resolved when Rep. Jeff Miller, Murray’s Republican counterpart in the House, called for a review of VA funding. "I think it's fair to say the veterans in this country have sacrificed in their service to our nation, but they are willing to do what's necessary to help get this country's fiscal house in order," Miller explained.
Murray, the daughter of a World War II veteran who was wounded on Okinawa, responded swiftly, saying she’ll be watching the GOP “like a hawk.” The 60-year-old lawmaker narrowly held on to her seat in November, having made veterans’ issues—and her role in legislation that, among other things, improves the VA’s suicide-prevention programs—a major part of her campaign.
Murray says she’ll be watching the GOP “like a hawk.”
One of her top goals is reducing the time it takes for vets to get their benefits checks. (It’s not uncommon for the claims process to take 18 months—or even longer if appealed, veterans’ advocates say.) Whether she’s successful is an iffy bet, even though the Obama administration’s 2012 budget calls for increasing discretionary VA spending to $62 billion—up $6 billion from just two years ago.
The agency is dealing with an influx of wounded vets and the government is being forced to cut back. More than 6 million veterans got their health care through the system last year. Since 2002, the VA has been providing care for more than 625,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war vets—more than 313,000 of whom have a diagnosed mental illness.
It’s not just the sheer number of new patients but the complexity of their wounds, injuries that would have killed many of these soldiers even a decade ago. And then there’s the issue of joblessness. The jobless rate among Iraq and Afghanistan vets jumped to 15.2 percent in January—up 3.5 percent from December—at a time when unemployment decreased slightly for the general population.
Murray has seen these problems firsthand. As a 22-year-old college student, she interned at Seattle’s VA hospital during the Vietnam War. She worked in the psych ward as she was earning a recreational-therapy and physical-education degree from Washington State University. “They were just starting out life,” she said. “We owed them more than just a protest on the street.”
Chief among her concerns is the VA’s slow pace in implementing the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act, which became law last May. The act gives training, respite care, and stipends to family members who take on the role of long-term caregivers to the wounded. The administration, however, has missed key deadlines for implementing the law and is trying to limit the number of people who would qualify for assistance.
In a way, Murray has been preparing for the chairmanship since childhood. She grew up with a father who suffered debilitating shrapnel wounds in his back and legs. Murray was 15 when her dad became confined to a wheelchair after developing multiple sclerosis. "He died with the shrapnel still in him," she told me. She describes her father as a "typical" vet: “They came home and they just started a new life. They just put it in the back drawer.”
Her experience helps explains why she is so critical of what she sees as the Obama administration’s slow pace in implementing some of the president’s campaign pledges, specifically the promises to digitize medical records and to reduce the backlog of claims. Both initiatives have suffered from a lack of personnel and leadership, in Murray’s view. “I’m frustrated that they have made a lot of promises that they have not been able to keep,” she said. “I think we’ve all given them a good honeymoon, and now it’s time for them to show their work.”
Laura Colarusso is a reporter at The Daily Beast. She previously worked as a senior news editor at Talking Points Memo. She has also written for The Boston Globe, The Star-Ledger (Newark), AOL and New Jersey Monthly Magazine.