Thursday, September 30, 2010







"Let the record show that members in attendence, besides the Chair, are Mr. [Harry] Mitchell of Arizona, Mr. [Harry] Teague of New Mexico, Mr. [Ciro] Rodriguez of Texas, Mr. [Jerry] McNerney of California and I would ask unanimous consent that our collegue, the gentleman from North Carolina, Mr. [Walter] Jones be allowed to sit at the dais and participate as a member of this Committee for the purpose of this hearing," House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Bob Filner declared at the start of today's full committee hearing entitled "The True Cost of the War." He would go on to note that US House Rep and House VA Committee member Zachary Space ("from Ohio") was also present for the hearing and that non-Committee member Jim Moran (Rep from Virginia) was present and that he would also be sitting at the dais and participating, for today's hearing, as a Committee member. US House Rep George Miller (California) also joined the hearing during the first panel. But where were most of the members? What was going on? Congress adjourned today before the hearing. Congress wasn't in session. Those participating stayed on to participate while others in the House rushed to return to their districts and begin campaigning.
We're going to note a lengthy portion of Chair Filner's opening remarks and three things before we do. One, these are his stated remarks, not his prepared, written opening statement. Two, pay-go means that you have to have the money in the budget when you approve the spending. He'll note that the Defense Dept's budget isn't required to do that. That means that department makes a request and gets it even though the money isn't there which is what they mean by "taxing your children" (or grandchildren) because when the money's not there, the bill has to be paid by someone and it falls on the future tax payers. Third, Bob Filner has spoken out against the VA's use of "personality disorder" discharges to avoid covering veterans' needed treatment (he did so most recently in a September 15th hearing). He brought up the topic in a single-sentence today and I'm not sure it's clear in the statement if you're just reading it (the tone of his voice made it clear if you were at the hearing).
Chair Bob Filner: It struck me as I looked at a lot of the facts and data that we-we see across our desks that, as a Congress, as a nation, we really do not know the true costs of the wars we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. [. . .] We all look at the data that comes from these wars. It struck me one day that the official data for, for example, the wounded was around 45,000 for both wars. And yet we know that six or seven hundred thousand of our veterans of these wars -- of which there are over a million already -- have either filed claims for disability or sought health care from the VA for injuries suffered at war -- 45,000 versus 800,000? This is not a rounding error. I think this is a deliberate attempt to mask what is going on in terms of the actual casualty figures. We know that there is a denial of PTSD -- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It's a 'weakness' among Marines and soldiers to admit mental illness so we don't even have those figures until maybe it's too late. We all know that women are participating in this war at a degree never before seen in our nation's history and, yet, by whatever estimate you look, whether it's half or two-thirds have suffered sexual trauma. The true cost of war? We know that over 25,000 of our soldiers who were originally diagnosed with PTSD got their diagnosis changed or their diagnosis was changed as they were -- had to leave the armed forces, changed to "personality disorder." And not only does that diagnosis beg the question of why we took people in with the personality disorder, it means that there's a pre-existing condition and we don't have to take care of them as a nation. Cost of war? There have been months in these wars where the suicides of active duty have exceeded the deaths in action. Why is that? When our veterans come home from this war, we say we support troops, we support troops, we support troops? 30% unemployment rate for returning Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans. That's three times an already horrendous rate in our nation. Guardsman find difficulty getting employment because they may be deployed. Now a democracy has to go to war sometimes. But people have to know in a democracy what is the cost. They have to be informed of the true -- of the true nature -- not only in terms of the human cost, the material cost, but the hidden cost that we don't know until after the fact or don't recognize. We know -- Why is it that we don't have the mental health care resources for those coming back? Is it because we failed to understand the cost of serving our military veterans is a fundamental cost of the war? Is it because we sent these men and women into harms way without accounting for and providing the resources necessary for their care if they're injured or wounded or killed? Every vote that Congress has taken for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has failed to take into account the actual cost of these wars by ignoring what we will require to meet the needs of our men and women in uniform who have been sent into harms way. This failure means that soldiers who are sent to war on behalf of their nation do not know if their nation will be there for them tomorrow. The Congress that sends them into harms way assumes no responsibility for the longterm consequences of their deployment. Each war authorization and appropriation kicks the proverbial can down the road and whether or not the needs of our soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan will be met is totally dependent on the budget priorities of a future Congress which includes two sets of rules: One for going to war and one for providing for our veterans who fight in that war. We don't have a budget for the VA today as we are about to enter the new fiscal year. We are trying to provide for those involved in atomic testing in WWII -- who were told would be no problems and yet they can't get compensation for cancers. We cannot -- This Committee and this Congress has a majority of people who say we should fully compensate the victims of Agent Orange for injuries in WWII -- I'm sorry, Vietnam. Yet was have a pay-go rule on a bill that's coming out of here. They say it's going to cost ten billion dollars or twenty billion over the next ten years. We don't have it. Why don't we have it? They fought for this nation. We're trying to deal with the Persian Gulf War still -- not to mention all the casualties from this one. So we have to find a pay-go. But the Dept of Defense doesn't have to. So they system that we have for appropriating funds in Congress is designed to make it much easier to vote to send our soldiers into harms way. That's much easier than to care for them when they come home. This Committee and everyone of the people here has had to fight tooth and nail to get enough money for our veterans. We got to fight for it every day. We've been successful in the last few years but we don't know if that will -- if that rate of growth will continue. This is morally wrong in my opinion and an abdication of our fundamental responsibilities as members of Congress. It is past time for Congress to recognize that standing by our men and women in uniform -- meeting their needs -- is a fundamental cost of war and we should account for those needs and take responsibility for meeting them at the time that we send these young people into combat.Every Congressional appropriation for war, in my view, should include money for what, I'm going to call it, a veterans' trust fund that will ensure the projected needs of our wounded and injured soldiers are fully met at the time that their going to war is appropriated. It's not a radical idea. Business owners are required to account for their deferred liability every year. Our federal government has no such requirement when it comes to the deferred liabiilty of meeting the needs of our men and women in uniform even though meeting those needs is a moral obligation of our nation and a fundamental cost. It does not make sense fiscally, it does not make sense ethically. If in years past, Congress had taken into account this deferred fiscal liability and moral obligation of meeting the needs of soldiers, we would not have the kind of overburdened delivery system that we have today in the Veterans Administration. And would veterans and their advocates on Capitol Hill have to fight as hard as they do every year for benefits that should be readily available as a matter of course? Would they have to worry as much as they do today that these benefits will become targets in the debate over reducing the federal budget? Listen to this statement by one of the co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility -- that's trying to figure out how we balance our budget -- former Senator [Alan] Simpson said, "The irony is that veterans who saved their country are now in a way not helping us to save this country in this fiscal mess." That is, they should defer their health and welfare needs because of a budget problem.
Rep Walter Jones would note that he thought the Veterans Trust Fund was a good general first step and one he would be supporting: "I feel frustrated when I sit here, I've seen it for years, I see those kids at Walter Reed with their legs blown off, I see the moms crying, the wives crying. The kids are 19, 21-years-old and, as you said, it's 30 years from now that we've really got to be careful. [.. .] But Mr. Chairman, please know that you have my commitment to join in whatever effort we move forward on because we're not being honest, we're cheating the veterans, if we don't do what is necessary today."
The first panel was composed of professors Linda J. Bilmes and Joseph E. Stigliz (of Harvard and Columbia, economists who wrote The Three Trillion Dollar War) and Disabled American Veterans' Joseph A. Violante. There were three panels. Due to space limitations, we'll focus on the first panel today and return to this hearing in tomorrow's snapshot.
US House Rep Jim Moran: Mr. [David] Obey, myself, Mr. [Jack] Murtha, I think Mr. [Charlie] Rangel, perhaps Chairman Filner, we voted for an amendment that went nowhere but we did it for two or three years running -- it was Mr. Obey's idea -- to have a surcharge to pay for the war. If we were going to pursue the Iraq War, let's just figure out what the cost is and pay for it rather than making that decision to go to war but passing on the cost to our children and grandchildren to pay for it. It went down, I think there were more than 400 people voted against the concept but it doesn't mean it wasn't a legitimate issue to raise and I think it would have been the responsible thing to do. So my first question of two would be would you have been able to estimate what that surcharge would have been when we were actually making the decision? Is that consistent with the thrust of your testimony that that's how we should go about making the decision of whether or not to go to war in the future? Professor Stigliz?
Joseph E. Stigliz: I think it's an excellent idea for a number of reasons. First, I think - I think it's very important to have transparency and accountability in government. That you ought to know what you're doing and what it costs and citizens ought to know that if you want to get something you have to pay for it. Just like shopping. Anything. Secondly, we can calculate it. That's the point that we're making. You can't estimate it perfectly but you can't estimate Social Security perfectly. But you can get a fairly reliable estimate that would be the basis of a surcharge. And how -- whether you express it as a percentage of the defense appropriations or as a tax, a separate tax, you know, express it in a number of different ways. It would be very easy, actually, to do that. And the third point is the point that professor Bilmes made and the Congressman made which is: By doing that you would be setting aside money into a trust fund and that is the only way that you can insulate this money against what I see as the increasing budget stringency that our country is going to be facing and we should recongize that for the next twenty, thirty years we are going to be facing very difficult budgetary problems and they're not going to go away. And there is no easy way -- I have some views about how you could do it -- but there is no easy way out of that. And the reality then is that under the pay-go current framework that supporting these obligations that we've undertaken to our veterans has to compete with every other expenditure. And -- and there will be pressure. And the reference to the Debt Commission, the reference to former Congressman SImpson's testimony is evidence of that kind of pressure that will be put on veterans expenditures.
US House Rep Jim Moran: Well thank you, professor. You've mentioned in your testimony, and Professor Bilmes' as well, the fragmented costs of war. Just one example, in the Defense Appropriations Committee, we put 900 million dollars just for Traumatic Brain Injury and then, in this continuing resolution, I don't think there's two or three members who are aware that we added another 300 million dollars -- was a reprogramming of money for something else -- bringing up to 1.2 million dollars just for Traumatic Brain Injury, just for one year, Fiscal Year 2010. But the other question I wanted to ask -- and then I'll yield back the time and I thank the Chairman -- Senator [Jim] Webb and others in both the House and Senate strongly supported and was passed a GI Bill of Rights. The idea was to basically create a middle class again in the way that we did after WWII -- by enabling returning veterans to get higher education and to be able to lead to fuller, better employment prospects -- as you said, 30% of our veterans returning home are unemployed. But this also extends to the family, the wives and spouses. Do we have an estimate of the cost of that? And I know that [House Education and Labor Committee] Chairman [George] Miller would be very interested as well. What are we paying for that portion of higher education out of the same federal budget? Professor Bilmes?
Linda J. Bilmes: I mean, I don't have an estimate for that but I think it's a good question. And I think it is, like all of these numbers, it's a number that could be calculated. One of our overall points throughout the process of working on these issues has been that there's actually very little attention to getting robust estimates in the veterans field. And when you compare the amount of effort, for example, that goes into studying the Social Security system compared with the amount of effort that goes into studying the longterm costs of veterans -- whether it's the educational, the transition assistance program, the research funding, the benefits, etc. -- it's a tiny fraction, not in scale with the, you know, the actual absolute size of the liability. But unfortunately I don't have that particular number.
US House Rep Jim Moran: No, but it would be interesting to calculate.
Joseph E. Stigliz: Can I just make --
US House Rep Jim Moran: Yes.
Joseph E. Stigliz: -- one further comment about the importance of providing the kind of benefits, GI Benefits. As we move to the all-volunteer army, we are recruiting particular socio-economic groups into the army and other military services and these are often among the parts of our society that are less privileged. And unless we do that we will continue to have the problems of the 30% unemployment, which is a long run problem, for our society. And there's been reference made to high suicide rates, high problems of family -- Those problems are all compounded when people can't get a job and when people don't have the adequate education in a modern economy, it's very difficult to get the jobs. So I view this as part of our social obligation to those who fought for us which we are now really not fulfilling.
US House Rep Jim Moran: Absolutely and one cost -- a very substantial cost -- that we don't factor in is the burden on local, municipal human service programs because these folks -- a vast, a large number -- go back into the community but still have mental health adjustment problems, domestic abuse problems and so on related to their combat experience and its muncipalities responsibilities to care for them and we don't calculate that cost, let alone add it to the full cost of the war.

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