MILITARY CONSTRUCTION AND VETERANS AFFAIRS APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2008
(Senate - September 05, 2007)

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[Pages S11092-S11095]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]




  MILITARY CONSTRUCTION AND VETERANS AFFAIRS APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2008

  The PRESIDING OFFICER. Under the previous order, the Senate will 
resume consideration of H.R. 2642, which the clerk will report.
  The legislative clerk read as follows:

       A bill (H.R. 2642) making appropriations for military 
     construction, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and related 
     agencies for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2008, and 
     for other purposes.

  The Senator from Rhode Island.
  Mr. REED. Mr. President, I am pleased to resume consideration of the 
fiscal year 2008 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and related 
agencies appropriations bill.
  To recap the essentials which I discussed yesterday, the bill 
provides $109.2 billion in funding, including $44.5 billion in 
mandatory spending and $43 billion in discretionary funding for the 
Department of Veterans Affairs. Overall discretionary funding in the 
bill totals $64.7 billion. That is a $4 billion increase over the 
President's budget request. Most of the increased funding is targeted 
at expanding and improving veterans health care, which is an essential 
requirement for our obligation to the veterans, and also it recognizes 
that as generations of veterans are aging, those veterans from Korea 
and World War II and the Vietnam conflict, we also have a new era of 
veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, and this money is essential.
  This bill represents a landmark commitment to our troops and their 
families and our Nation's veterans by investing in urgently needed 
military construction projects and in expanding health care services to 
our veterans.
  For the Department of Veterans Affairs, the bill includes $29 billion 
for direct medical services for veterans. This level of funding is 
equal to the amount requested by the veterans service organizations in 
the independent budget. Each year, our veterans service organizations 
prepare an independent budget, not based upon what the administration 
thinks they can afford but what veterans need. This is one of the few 
times we have been able to meet that objective of the veterans service 
organizations within their independent budget. It will allow the 
Department to increase its resources for both physical and mental 
health care for veterans, and it will give the Department the resources 
it needs to expand research and treatment of traumatic brain injury and 
post-traumatic stress disorders. At a time when scores of veterans are 
returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with these often 
invisible wounds, this increased funding in this regard is urgently 
needed. It has been estimated that perhaps 30 percent of those who have 
served in Iraq or Afghanistan have received either traumatic brain 
injuries or have post-traumatic stress or both, and we have to be able 
to respond to those concerns.
  The bill also includes needed funding for military construction of 
facilities

[[Page S11093]]

and housing for our troops and their families. We are a nation at war, 
and our military forces need the best possible facilities to work, 
train, and to hone their skills, and their families need the best 
possible housing and quality-of-life facilities, such as chapels and 
childcare centers, to see them through the strain and hardship of 
repeated and lengthy deployments.
  As I have said before, this bill is supported by the Department of 
Veterans Affairs and the veterans service organizations. The President, 
in his Statement of Administration Policy released yesterday, signaled 
his intention to sign the bill as reported out of the committee, and I 
hope that intention is carried through.
  There is no reason the Senate cannot complete work on this bill at a 
reasonable hour today. In fact, I have spoken with the majority leader, 
and he has indicated to me that it is his desire to move this bill 
today, to complete work on it today, and to be able to have a vote on 
final passage we hope sometime today. I urge my colleagues, if they 
have amendments they wish to offer, to bring them to the floor as soon 
as possible. It takes a long time to deal with some of these issues, to 
vet them, to clear the amendments, and the slower the amendments are 
presented to us, the longer it will take to complete action on this 
bill. But the majority leader is committed to finishing this bill 
today, and I share that commitment. The Senate cannot afford to drag 
its feet on this bill. Our men and women in uniform, our Nation's 
veterans are depending on us to provide the resources they so urgently 
need. I urge my colleagues to move quickly to pass this bill.
  Mr. President, I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a 
quorum.
  The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.
  The legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.
  Mrs. MURRAY. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order 
for the quorum call be rescinded.
  The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.
  Mrs. MURRAY. Mr. President, in Iraq and Afghanistan, like so many 
conflicts before, our servicemembers have done absolutely everything 
that has been asked of them. They have answered the President's call to 
war with honor and a sense of duty we have come to expect from our 
Nation's bravest men and women. They have performed under enormous 
pressure in the middle of a civil war, they have left behind loved ones 
who count on them, and they have continued to put their lives on the 
line every day.
  Unfortunately, at home, their commitment to service has not been met 
yet by an administration that is committed to care for them. From poor 
conditions at VA facilities around the country, lack of PTSD 
counselors, benefits claims backlogs that keep our veterans waiting for 
months and months and months and sometimes years, it is very clear that 
so far this administration has failed to account for our Nation's 
veterans and to count them as a cost of this war. It is unacceptable 
that servicemembers who fought overseas are returning home and being 
forced to fight their own Government for the care and services they 
need.

  Today, with the bill that is in front of us, the VA bill, we take a 
major step toward reversing that trend and the Bush administration's 
failure to care for our heroes. The funding for our veterans included 
in the VA bill is more than $3.6 billion over the President's request. 
After years of cutting corners on caring for our heroes, we are finally 
putting forth an honest assessment of what these men and women need.
  This bill takes into account the additional strains on the VA system 
that simultaneous wars and new battlefield realities present. It is an 
investment that represents nearly all of the independent budget, which 
is the recommendation of the funds needed to care for our veterans and 
is compiled by our veterans service organization.
  This bill invests in improving health care, expanding mental health 
services, and constructing new facilities that are really needed. It is 
going to mean, when this bill is passed and signed by the President, 
more qualified health care workers, better prosthetics that our 
servicemembers are asking for, and more accessible veterans facilities. 
It is also going to mean, importantly, thousands of new VA case workers 
who will help us reduce that unacceptable delay that we have heard 
about from so many of our veterans when they come home and try to 
access their benefits.
  It will improve conditions at our VA facilities. It will add an 
increased investment in polytrauma and mental health care facilities 
that will drastically improve treatment for PTSD and traumatic brain 
injury and catastrophic injuries as well. Most of all, this bill means 
after years of neglect our Government is again going to honor our 
veterans' sacrifices.
  This bill and all it provides could not come at a more crucial time. 
As a member myself of both the appropriations subcommittee that is 
responsible for this bill and the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, I 
have heard numerous times firsthand about the VA's shortcomings in 
caring for our veterans. In fact, last month on the August break I held 
a Senate Veterans' Affairs field hearing in Takoma, WA, to specifically 
examine the challenges that men and women are facing when they come 
home. At that hearing I spoke with Brandon Jacobs. He is a veteran of 
the Army and National Guard, and he served in Iraq. He said a lot more 
has to be done to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress syndrome and 
combat-related stresses. He talked about how we needed to not only 
increase access for him and his fellow servicemembers, but also for the 
families that struggle when a loved one returns home with an invisible 
wound.
  I also heard from a young man, Dan Purcell. He is an Iraq veteran who 
said he didn't ``want to be treated as a tool that could be casually 
discarded when broken or found to be no longer useful.'' What a tragic 
statement from someone who served us overseas, that when he comes home 
he feels like a discarded tool because he has been broken. That is not 
how we should be treating our veterans, and that is not how this VA/HUD 
bill treats our veterans.
  This bill that is before us finally takes the important steps that 
are necessary to recognize Brandon and Dan and so many others who are 
part of the costs of this war. We also have to make sure our troops are 
ready and that they receive the training they need before we send them 
overseas. I am very pleased that within this bill, the military 
construction investments that are made will help our country do a 
better job in training the men and women we asked to serve us in our 
military. In my home State of Washington, our military facilities play 
a very important role in our Nation's security. We have Fort Lewis in 
Tacoma, where we are training the Stryker Brigades at the center of the 
fighting in Iraq, we have Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane that 
plays a major role in our air defense, and we have the Naval Air 
Station Whidbey Island that helps patrol the Pacific shores. It is 
extremely critical that these bases, which serve such vital roles, 
receive the funding they need.
  The bill that is in front of us today does just that and provides 
more than $635 million in improvements for Washington State military 
installations. I thank Senators Reed and Hutchison for their special 
attention and recognition of the needs of our bases in my home State of 
Washington and across the country. Their leadership on this bill has 
been outstanding.
  I know the chair and ranking member will be on the Senate floor 
throughout today. The leader has told us that he wants this bill 
finished by this evening. I urge all Members who have any amendments to 
come this afternoon to get their amendments offered because we do have 
to wrap up this bill. We are very aware of the timelines that are 
approaching, the very short amount of time that is left to get our 
numerous appropriations bills through. We intend to move them through. 
In order to do that we ask Members to come to the floor today, offer 
their amendments, let's work through them and get this bill passed so 
we can get it sent to the President.
  It is important to pass this bill because this bill recognizes that 
any time we invest in building our military and improving training for 
our troops we invest in their care. I remind my colleagues what George 
Washington famously observed one time:

       The willingness with which our young people are likely to 
     serve in any way war, no

[[Page S11094]]

     matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how 
     they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and 
     appreciated by their country.

  The bill in front of us reverses President Bush's failures and 
carries through on the commitment that our very first President 
discussed. It keeps our military strong by honoring the sacrifices of 
our heroes with the funding that meets their needs.
  I note this bill has been endorsed by the Disabled Americans, 
Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Paralyzed Veterans of 
America, AMVETS, and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, 
among many other veterans service organizations that take so much time 
out of their own lives to fight for our veterans and recognize the 
critical funding for this bill.
  I note an AP article from this morning that says the Secretary of the 
VA, Secretary Nickolson, has said in a letter to key lawmakers they do 
not need additional funding, they just need this bill passed. I note we 
have heard that song before, and that song was wrong.
  We have to do the right thing. This bill is critical. The additional 
funding in this bill, I think every Member knows is needed. Every one 
of us has been out there and talked to the men and women who have come 
home from Iraq, to their families, and heard from PTSD counselors on 
down the line who have visited facilities or Walter Reed or seen 
facilities in their own States. They know this funding is needed. I 
encourage my colleagues to come to the Senate floor, offer their 
amendments, get this bill expeditiously to conference and sent to the 
President. I encourage the President and Secretary not to challenge us 
on the need for funding but to do the right thing; recognize the care 
of our service men and women is part of the cost of war. It is an 
obligation we have to meet.
  We are meeting it with this bill, and I hope we can get it done 
quickly so our veterans, many men and women who have served us, will 
know this country is doing right by them.
  I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.
  The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.
  The legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.
  Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for 
the quorum call be rescinded.
  The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.


                                H.R. 327

  Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, I wanted to spend a few minutes noting 
some things in the press about H.R. 327 and my hold on that bill. This 
is a bill which is very well intended. It is to help prevent suicide 
among our veterans.
  I have been in the medical field since 1978--1979, that is. 
Approximately 6 to 10 percent of my practice has been associated with 
depression, treating clinical depression, suicidal ideation, post-
traumatic stress disorder, and other issues.
  We need to offer our veterans whatever we can offer them in terms of 
helping them deal with what they have been through and also helping our 
veterans who have no connection with their war experience in terms of 
treatment of depression.
  Our veterans have the right to expect the legislation we craft to 
deliver on good intentions. H.R. 327, frankly, does not do that. One of 
the serious flaws with H.R. 327 is that every veteran is preconditioned 
with a mental status exam. So if you are a World War II vet and you 
have a sore throat and you go to the VA clinic in Muskogee, under 327 
you have to undergo a thorough mental status exam before you can have 
your sore throat treated. That is Congress hitting a gnat with a cinder 
block. It is wasteful of our dollars. It portends to have Congress 
practicing medicine, when, in fact, we do not know how to practice 
medicine, and you cannot.
  What this bill sets up is that Congress is going to mandate the 
doctor-patient relationship or the patient-PA or the patient-nurse 
practitioner or the patient-social service or licensed medical social 
service masters. What we have decided is to interject, because of the 
tragedies that we have seen in the last couple of years, a mandated 
form of treating suicide, depression, and risk of harm.
  I have reached out to Senator Harkin on this bill. I offered to make 
some simple changes. We were rebuffed. Then what we saw in the press is 
that I wanted to hold this only because of how somebody might not be 
able to have their second amendment rights guaranteed. That is hardly 
the situation at all. What I really am holding this bill for is 
because, first of all, it is bad medicine. No. 2, it duplicates and 
mandates things we should not be doing. It takes away from the 
professions within the VA who know what they are doing. It steps on and 
it interrupts what the VA is already implementing to a good extent and 
to a great degree.
  There is another very serious concern with this, which is that it 
mandates the tracking of veterans who have mental health issues. The 
vast majority of our veterans do not have mental health issues, but the 
assumption under this bill is they all have to be screened for it. That 
would be like me, with every patient that I ever see in my practice, 
the first thing I have to do is make sure, because they were in the 
military, that they do not have some type of mental health disturbance 
coming back. It is insulting to our military men and women who have 
given their lives, given their blood, given their time, given their 
honor, and given their sacrifice to assume they cannot do that without 
having some disruption in their capability to function in this society. 
So it is highly insulting to the vast majority of our veterans.
  Now, the question is, How do we solve the problem of depression and 
post-traumatic stress disorder that leads to suicidal thought, 
ideation, and behavior? That is what we ought to be doing. And what we 
are doing is creating a set of circumstances that may have an impact 
probably not any greater than what the VA is doing now but will, in 
fact, take away great resources from other mental health issues as well 
as other health issues within the VA.
  Let me give you some statistics, if I may. The VA is 3 years into a 
mental health strategic plan that has been markedly successful in 
improving the quality of care and ensuring that high-risk factors such 
as suicidal ideation are considered when veterans are assessed or 
impact or enter the VA system. The VA has suicide prevention 
coordinators in every VA facility in this country. They have a hotline 
24/7. They have hired over 3,000 mental health staffers just since the 
end of 2005. So they have recognized what was the problem. They are 
responding to it. They have two suicide prevention centers of 
excellence that are geared up and working on the very specific issues 
associated with our military and post-traumatic stress disorder from 
combat.
  Between 2002 and 2007, the VA spent 2\1/2\ times the percentage of 
their budget as we spend in all other health care on mental health. So 
they are already addressing the issue.
  The other thing that is disturbing is this tracking of what they will 
do. They are not going to be tracking the data, they are going to be 
tracking individual veterans under this bill. That violates their own 
civil liberties. If, in fact, you have encountered the VA and because 
you were screened, not of your choice and not because you had signs or 
symptoms, because of that, that becomes a part of your record. You 
automatically are limited in lots of things that you cannot do in this 
country because you served your country. Now you have a mental health 
screening, an indication on your VA chart that would forbid you from 
becoming a police officer, an airline pilot, or an EMS, many other 
professions within this country. The idea that we are going to track 
individual veterans and their mental health status rather than the 
data--this bill specifically states that we are going to track the 
veterans, not the data--is wrong.

  Finally, this bill sets out a peer counseling provision that has 
already been proven in the literature to not be effective. Yet it is 
mandated in this bill. So what this bill is about is the Senate 
practicing medicine and mandating ways to do things that the VA itself 
has already started. It is 3 years into a program of which they are 
using experts in the field to guide them, and we are using emotion and 
response.
  I am going to continue to hold this bill until we work on the issues 
to guarantee freedom of veterans in terms of tracking of their data and 
them individually, in terms of securing the data

[[Page S11095]]

about them--the VA has had two serious leaks on veterans health care 
data in the last 7 years--and also working to make sure we use a mental 
status exam when it is indicated and not create a system that is an 
affront to all the people who have served the country.
  With that, I yield the floor.

                          ____________________