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Republicans vow not to cut veterans’ benefits. But the legislation suggests otherwise.
If Your Time is short
- Republicans say they will not cut benefits for veterans in their bid to rein in the federal budget.
- Sparing veterans and defense spending, as Republicans promise, would be extremely difficult, requiring cuts of more than 20% in other parts of the budget.
- The Republicans’ Limit, Save and Grow Act already proposes a $2 billion cut to the Department of Veterans Affairs by rescinding unspent COVID-19 relief funding.
House Republicans have set themselves a tough, if not impossible, task in attempting to use a standoff over the nation’s debt limit to cut federal spending to what it was in 2022.
Retrenching to those budget levels would require cutting 8% or 9% from discretionary spending, which excludes entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Spending for those programs is required by law. Other spending is dictated by congressional appropriations annually. The latter is up for debate here.
Nevertheless, House Republicans tried to thread the needle with the Limit, Save, Grow Act, which passed the House narrowly April 26. Its backers say the measure would address the debt ceiling while implementing "commonsense spending reforms." The House GOP leadership promised to spare programs that are popular with Republican voters, such as the defense budget and veterans’ health services.
Democrats pounced on these possible cuts, especially those that would affect veterans. Their talking points appeared to infuriate Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., chair of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. On the House floor, he drew a line in the sand.
"I'm dead serious that we're not cutting veterans, and I mean it," Bost said. "The White House and Democrats know that we can get our fiscal house in order while ensuring our service members and veterans are taken care of, and yet, with no regard for the impact of their words, they continue to speak lies about how House Republicans are cutting veterans’ benefits."
With such an unequivocal statement, we wondered whether Bost was correct. Can the GOP plan dramatically reduce federal spending without taking away funding for veterans’ programs?
To understand this fully, two things need to be examined: the budget projections that suggest the GOP plan would result in trims to veterans’ programs and what is spelled out in the legislation.
Democrats and agencies within the Biden administration, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, looked at the GOP bill, and did their own math to determine budgetary estimates.
Because the bill is mostly a list of general spending categories, the estimates reflect uniform cuts to discretionary spending. And, because there is no specific language in the House-passed measure to exempt support for veterans’ programs, the VA assumed a full, 22% cut for fiscal year 2024 compared with 2023 funding and estimated reductions as high as $29.7 billion.
That could translate to 13 million fewer health care appointments for veterans and significant cuts to benefit payments, staffing and clinic construction, according to the agency.
Bost's communications director, Kathleen McCarthy, said, however, that Democrats are knowingly making a bogus assumption that cuts will be applied evenly, and pointed to public statements by Republican leaders who have insisted veterans will be spared.
"We make sure that our veterans and our service members are taken care of," House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in a speech at the New York Stock Exchange last month.
"We will provide for our national defense, take care of veterans, and secure our border — all while reducing overall spending," House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, said when Republicans unveiled their plan.
But delivering on that promise would necessitate even deeper cuts to other programs.
Of the $1.7 trillion discretionary budget spent in 2022, a Congressional Budget Office analysis released in March found that $113 billion went to certain veterans’ benefits and $751 billion covered defense.
Shielding defense and veterans’ programs would force Republicans to concentrate all of the cuts on the remaining discretionary budget, which the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found would amount to 23 percent cuts, an amount similar to the administration’s estimate.
Veterans’ funding has emerged as one of the debt discussion’s most hotly contested issues.
The White House tweeted about Republican cuts to veterans, prompting an angry response from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., echoed Bost’s claim in a hearing Thursday, accusing Democrats of "lies." Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., shot back that House Republicans voted down Democratic amendments that would have explicitly exempted veterans.
The GOP also could face opposition from within its ranks. To achieve their goals without affecting veterans, House Republicans would have to find other reductions supported by nearly the entire caucus. Opposition from five or more members would doom the legislation.
The situation is particularly dicey because certain Republicans oppose cutting some of the programs likely to be targeted — such as projects in their districts — and other Republicans favor even deeper cuts.
More than 20 veterans’ groups have signed a letter opposing the GOP plan.
The nation’s largest veterans’ organizations have said they will not take a position on the legislation to avoid the appearance of partisanship. But representatives for some of those groups said although they believe Republican leaders genuinely want to protect veterans, they understand it is hard for such a narrowly divided body to make guarantees.
"Mike Bost and the leaders may not want to cut veterans, but they may have to acquiesce to one or two or three or more of their members to get the thing done," said Patrick Murray, director of national legislative service for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, referring to raising the debt ceiling while reducing spending.
Though other large veterans’ groups declined to comment, representatives highlighted possible cuts to programs they consider worthwhile that some lawmakers have declared unnecessary or wasteful.
"We've heard people say they're not going to cut spending, but then we've heard people say they're going to cut wasteful spending," Murray said. "Well, that's subjective."
Veterans’ organizations are also worried about a possible rollback of the landmark — and expensive — Honoring Our PACT Act, which provides for the care and remediation for veterans exposed to toxic substances overseas. The law did not take effect until this year.
Republican lawmakers maintain that they can make the numbers work to preserve the law.
But the House-passed debt-ceiling measure does specifically mandate one significant cut, as Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the House Appropriations Committee’s top Democrat, pointed out. The GOP bill rescinds any unspent funding passed in bills on COVID-19 relief, including veterans’ funding. When Bost wrote to the VA at the end of March asking about unspent COVID-19 money, his office estimated some $4.5 billion was up for grabs.
DeLauro, in denouncing the GOP bill and apparently using more recent numbers, said the rescission would be closer to $2 billion.
"That is a straight-up, 'We're-taking-that-back' cut," said Murray.
Bost's office stuck to its side of the line in the sand, suggesting the money, once rescinded, could be repurposed for different veterans’ programs, but noted that would be up to appropriators.
Bost claimed that Republicans were not cutting veterans’ benefits even as the text of their bill to raise the nation’s debt ceiling would roll back all discretionary spending.
No language in the House-passed Limit, Save, Grow Act, was included to specifically protect it does include a specific budget rescission for unspent COVID-19 relief funds. That translates to $2 billion coming from the VA.
Although Congress could restore that money in the future, it would result in a reduction in spending for veterans as the proposal stands.House Republicans like Bost have said repeatedly they intend to protect this key constituency. But so far, such protections are not evident on paper.
We rate Bost's statement as Mostly False.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s speech at the New York Stock Exchange, April 17, 2023
Statement by House Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger on the Limit, Save, Grow Act, April 26, 2023
Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, "Putting the Limit, Save, Grow Act in Context," April 25, 2023
Letter to House Democrats from Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, March 21, 2023
Statement by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., on spending for veterans, April 26, 2023
Analysis of Rescissions in the Default On America Act, House Appropriations Committee minority estimate of veterans’ cuts
American Rescue Plan Act, March 11, 2021 (veterans appropriations on Page 110)
Limit, Save, Grow Act, sponsored by Rep. Jodey C. Arrington, R-Texas, engrossed April 26, 2023
MAX Information and Reports (Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Users): FY 2023-SF 133 Reports on Budget Execution and Budgetary Resources, April 20, 2023
U.S. Department of Treasury, "How Much Has the U.S. Government Spent This Year?" accessed May 1, 2023
Congressional Budget Office, "Discretionary Spending in Fiscal Year 2022: An Infographic," March 28, 2023
Letter from veterans’ service organizations to members of Congress, April 25, 2023
The Associated Press-NORC poll, "Many Dissatisfied With the Government’s Spending Priorities," poll by March 29, 2023
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "House Republicans’ Pledge to Cut Appropriated Programs to 2022 Level Would Have Severe Effects, Particularly for Non-Defense Programs," March 25, 2023
Letter, "VFW Asks Speaker of the House to Honor the Promises of the PACT Act," April 25, 2023
Background email discussion with office of Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., April 28, 2023
Email exchanges with Democratic staff of House Appropriations Committee, April 28, 2023
Telephone interview with Pat Murray, director of national legislative service for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, April 28, 2023
House floor speech regarding veterans programs by Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., C-Span, April 26, 2023
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Republicans vow not to cut veterans’ benefits. But the legislation suggests otherwise.
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