The fight over potential budget cuts to veterans’ care has devolved into finger-pointing and accusations of lying as the larger debt limit battle between Democrats and Republicans heats up.
Democrats and veterans’ groups say the GOP’s Limit, Save, Grow Act, which passed the House last week, will end up slashing key programs and services at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) at a time when it is supposed to be expanding care.
But Republicans are aggressively hitting back against those claims, accusing Democrats of outright lying and using veterans as “pawns” in the fight over the debt ceiling.
Biden on Tuesday trolled Republicans on Twitter by sharing an image of a flow chart, arguing that because the VA is not explicitly exempted from proposed cuts to domestic spending, Republicans voted to cut veterans’ care.
But Republicans point out there is no explicit mention of cutting the VA in the bill.
“They’re shamelessly lying about veterans benefits and politicizing the VA to do so,” House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) told reporters on Sunday.
Republican lawmakers point out that other federal agencies could be gutted more, and the VA budget preserved or even bumped up, to reach the desired overall spending target.
Carrie Farmer, the co-director of the Epstein Family Veterans Policy Research Institute at the nonpartisan think tank RAND Corporation, said the VA budget will ultimately depend on how reductions are spread out during the appropriations process.
“The text itself is silent on the VA budget,” she said. “All of those possibilities exist.”
The Limit, Save, Grow Act would return non-defense government spending to 2022 fiscal year levels, amounting to an estimated $130 billion, or 22 percent, cut across federal agencies, while also capping annual growth at 1 percent over a decade.
But it remains far from the finish line, given Democratic control of the Senate and Biden’s refusal to link budget talks to the GOP’s debt limit demands.
Before the legislation passed the House, the VA warned it would have a particularly severe impact on the healthcare system because it is funded by discretionary spending.
The VA has claimed it would impact 81,000 jobs in the department’s healthcare system, creating 30 million fewer outpatient visits and limiting the number of cancer screenings and substance abuse disorder treatments.
“A cut of that magnitude would be devastating to the VA,” said Mary Kaszynski, the director of government relations at VoteVets, which has adamantly opposed the GOP budget proposal.
Kaszynski said despite the Republican vows, she believed they would end up cutting the VA.
“Republicans can send any tweak they want — budgets are policy and the budget bill they just passed hurts the VA and hurts veterans,” she said. “Mark my words, at the end of day where they will land is cutting the VA.”
But Dan Caldwell, the vice president of the conservative Center for Renewing America, said the proposal his organization put out — which he said Republicans have viewed as a guide — actually projects the VA budget growing.
He accused Democrats of “using veterans to distract away from the fact that they don’t want to put our country on a better financial course.”
The VA budget for fiscal year 2023 amounted to more than $300 billion, and the department’s funding has grown by 300 percent since 2000, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
As the budget has grown, the veterans’ population has dropped sharply, driven by the passing of World War II veterans and a persistent recruitment challenge across military branches.
Still, the VA is already known for long waitlists and backlogs and the department is now handling an additional 500,000 claims from those who filed under the PACT Act, which expanded benefits for veterans exposed to toxins while deployed overseas.
The Limit, Save, Grow Act was introduced as a counter to President Biden’s $6 trillion budget request as Republicans seek to rein in government spending. The White House says its budget would reduce the deficit by trillions of dollars through new taxes.
The Treasury warned this week it could exhaust its options by June unless the debt ceiling is raised to authorize more borrowing, adding urgency to the standoff between House Republicans and Biden.
House Republicans held a press call on Sunday afternoon fuming about what they called the politicization of the VA and false information about the legislation.
Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said during the call the VA was being used as a “political hammer to deliver a message that is false,” repeating a message he delivered on the House floor last week.
“You better believe that I’m dead serious that we are not cutting veterans and I mean it,” Bost said on the floor. “You are playing politics with our veterans and their lives and their concerns. Veterans are not political pawns to advance an agenda.”
Still, that argument has done little to quell concerns from veterans’ groups, who say budget cuts will disproportionately impact veterans regardless of reductions to the VA.
Veterans groups have also pointed to another provision in the legislation that claws back unspent COVID-19 relief funds. The VA has about $4.5 billion of unspent funds from the American Rescue Plan passed in 2021.
Suzanne Gordon, a senior policy analyst at the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute, said veterans would also be impacted by cuts to the Department of Education or the postal service, where many of them work or require services.
“Veterans don’t just depend on the VA — they live in the same universe we live in,” she said. “Many veterans hanging by their fingernails are very triggered by this.”
Veterans’ organizations are asking for explicit language to be inserted into the bill that protects the VA, noting similar commitments have been made to other agencies and programs.
“How we take care of our veterans, how we allow them to get involved in our politics sends a huge signal to people who are about to raise their hands to service,” said Allison Jaslow, the CEO of the nonprofit group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“We have an imperative that we are keeping our promises here and I don’t understand why it’s so difficult.”