The Hill: Committee on Veterans Affairs sends important message during tense Senate time

by Rory E. Riley-Topping

At a time when partisan bickering has become the norm on Capitol Hill, particularly in the Senate, where the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump continues to dominate the headlines, a showing of bipartisanship and civility there deserves mention.

Enter the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, led by new Chairman Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-Mont.). At a markup this week, where the Committee unanimously passed nine bills, Moran opened the meeting by stating he hoped to have a “non-contentious, relatively short, but meaningful markup.” He successfully achieved that goal.

Moran also followed through on this sentiment by complimenting Tester during the markup, noting that they both serve on the same five committees, including the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and that, although they may disagree, they nonetheless have always worked well together.

“While a lot of momentous and contentious and historic things go on in the United States Senate, as we’ve seen for the last few weeks, I hope this Committee will continue to be a haven of bipartisanship and comradery and working together . . . sometimes we forget what’s important. But those who served our country served for purposes unrelated to democrat or republican, and I will do everything I can to ensure that this committee remains that place where we put veterans well-above that partisanship,” relayed Moran in his opening remarks.

Moran’s remarks are all the more important given the legacy of his predecessor, retired Senator Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), as well as the recent descent into partisan bickering seen over on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Upon his retirement, Isakson was described by his Senate colleagues as “a model of what a senator should be: someone who takes the job seriously and puts getting things done above party or politics.” Isakson himself remarked in his farewell speech on the Senate floor:

“Bipartisan doesn’t mean an [d]emocrat and an [r]epublican talk to each other every once in a while; it means that two people come together, probably have differences – probably have a lot of differences – but they find a way to get to the end of the trial where there is a possibility of a solution.”

When it was first announced that Moran would be succeeding Isakson, some stakeholders expressed concern that any senator could continue Isakson’s legacy, particularly at such a tense time in the Senate. However, during Moran’s tenure on the Committee, he has demonstrated the willingness to reach across the aisle, having sponsored several pieces of legislation with Tester before becoming Chairman.

At the recent markup, both Moran and Tester spoke in favor of the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, named for a retired Navy commander who died by suicide in 2018 at age 46, describing the legislation as a compromise between republicans and democrats on the committee.

Noticeably absent from the markup was the partisan bickering that dominated a similar hearing before the House committee in November 2019, where democrats opted to completely re-draft the bill without any suggestions or feedback from their Republican colleagues, just several weeks after they also denied republicans the opportunity to raise amendments to an unrelated piece of legislation, prompting them to storm out of the meeting.

The Senate legislation, which as was repeatedly stressed during the markup, is bipartisan and compiled with the input of multiple committee members, closely resembles the original legislation that invoked chaos for the House Committee on Veterans Affairs last year – the IMPROVE Act, originally introduced by Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Mich.) and boasting 251 cosponsors, a majority of House members.

During the October 2019 markup, Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) delayed a vote on the legislation, stating that additional time was needed to iron out concerns regarding oversight of the grants to non-governmental organizations that the legislation would authorize.

Unfortunately, at the subsequent November 2019 hearing on the legislation, far more concerns were raised than ironed out. Takano subsequently introduced his version of the legislation that passed out of committee along party lines – a far cry from what was seen with the Senate’s version.

After the House markup, republicans complained that the amended version contained too many stipulations, making it nearly impossible for smaller organizations, particularly those in rural areas, to obtain grants. On the other side, democrats argued that the stipulations were necessary to ensure that the VA secretary did not have unrestricted access to hand out federal funds – a process that they viewed as potentially ripe for corruption.

Democrats and Republicans in the House may continue to have disagreements on important issues such as preventing veteran suicides, but they should learn from their Senate colleagues; as Isakson also noted in his retirement speech: “We’re better than the hate and vile statements that some people make, and we’ve got to be better than that.”

Similarly, and in stark contrast to recent House hearings, Moran reminded his colleagues during the Senate markup: “my goal is to make certain that we give everybody around this table to present their ideas and their legislation . . . we’re introducing into [this] bill . . . [with] ideas from others on the committee who wanted to make sure their voices were heard.”

Tester added: “it would send an important message not only to the veterans but to the American public, that we can come together during a politically turbulent time to do what’s right.”

The Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs has sent that important message. Let’s hope their colleagues in the House are ready to receive it.