Three Republican senators are warning that the Senate’s bill to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs would increase the national debt by about a half trillion dollars or more over the next decade, a fact most senators ignored when they passed the bill earlier this week.
The Senate approved the bipartisan bill on Wednesday as a reaction to the VA’s failure to ensure thousands of veterans around the country receive healthcare. The bill would let veterans seek healthcare services outside the VA system, and would also spend money so the VA can lease health clinics and hire new staff.
Members of both parties were quick to jump on a broad solution to the VA health scandal.
But Senate Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), and Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) say that while the VA clearly needs to be fixed, the Senate failed to impose or even consider budgetary safeguards when it passed the bill. Instead, they said the Senate approved a plan that would allow the VA — which has already demonstrated difficulties in fulfilling its mission — to spend money at will to solve the problem.
The senators wrote to House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) on Friday, which cited a Congressional Budget Office analysis that said the bill would spend at least $35 billion over the next decade, and possibly much more.
“CBO says the ‘magnitude of those budgetary effects is highly uncertain,’ and could potentially increase existing VA spending by $50 billion a year — adding $435 billion or more over the next 10 years to the nation’s debt,” they wrote. “That is because the program is neither funded nor offset by spending reductions in lower priority programs.”
One Senate aide explained that because the Senate bill is considered emergency spending, none of it will have to be offset, and all of it will be added on to the national debt.
The letter asked Miller to write a more fiscally responsible bill than the Senate passed.
“We therefore would urge the House to responsibly fund needed improvements to veterans’ care and to pay for it by prioritizing within our existing budget limits,” they wrote.
Sessions, Corker and Johnson were the only senators to vote against the bill earlier this week. Just before the vote, Sessions argued that the bill exceeded agreed-upon spending limits, and that the Senate should take more time to find spending offsets, such as cutting out waste and abuse within the VA.
Sessions noted then that the bill allows the VA to spend “such sums as necessary” to carry out the bill.
“I feel strongly that we have to do the right thing for our veterans, but history suggests a blank check for the bureaucracy, an unlimited entitlement program, will not have the desired results — indeed, may even yield the opposite results from what we hope to achieve,” he said.
But that argument was rejected by almost all other senators, who believed the emergency surrounding the VA called for immediate action, regardless of the cost.
“This is an emergency,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “If it is not an emergency that we have neglected the brave men and women who have served this country and keep us free, than I do not know what an emergency is.”
A federal budget watchdog said Thursday that it agrees with Sessions’s conclusion. After the Senate’s action, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget wrote that the bill has the potential to become a massive new federal entitlement that’s bigger than Medicare Part D.
The Committee noted that the Congressional Budget Office estimated that just one piece of the bill would cost $35 billion through 2016. But CBO also said the bill creates a health program that would cost about $50 billion a year.
While the program is temporary, the Committee said Congress will likely be under pressure to extend this program. If that happens, it would cost $500 billion over the next decade.
“In other words, the provision could create an entitlement bigger than Medicare Part D when it was enacted,” the Committee wrote on its website.
Read the senators’ letter here: