ROGER R. RAPP
ACTING UNDER SECRETARY FOR MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
HOUSE COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
SUBCOMMITTEE ON BENEFITS
June 16, 1999
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, I am pleased to be here this morning to provide the views of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on several bills that affect important programs for veterans and their dependents or survivors. Today’s agenda includes the following bills: H.R. 1247 (World War II memorial); H.R. 1476 (establishment of additional national cemeteries);
H.R. 1663 (designation of National Medal of Honor Memorial);
H.R. 2040 (assessment of national cemeteries); H.R. 1484 (authorization of appropriations for homeless veterans projects); and H.R. 1603 (housing loan entitlement for reservists). Accompanying me this morning is Ms. Judith Caden, Deputy Director, Loan Guaranty Service, Veterans Benefits Administration.
H.R. 1247 – WORLD WAR II MEMORIAL
Mr. Chairman, H.R. 1247 would authorize the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) to use "special borrowing authority" for the World War II memorial authorized by Public Law No. 103-32 and to use, register, license, and defend trademarks, copyrights, etc., in connection with fund raising for that purpose.
The Administration strongly supports extension of the authority to establish the memorial. The Fiscal Year 2000 Budget, however, proposed continued reliance on private contributions as the best approach to completing the World War II memorial. The Administration opposes "special borrowing authority" as transition funding because it would undercut solicitation of private contributions, thereby hindering, rather than expediting, the completion of the memorial.
Specifically, the Administration is concerned that this "special borrowing authority" would undermine the private contribution effort to raise around $150 million, and thus this "borrowing" would never be repaid. The Administration questions whether potential contributors would continue to contribute after they find out that their contributions would go to paying off Federal Government loans. Thus, relying on future voluntary contributions from the public for the repayment of debt owed to the Treasury would not provide sufficient assurance of repayment. Through the Commemorative Works Act, Congress and successive Administrations have sized the scale of proposed monuments by their abilities to raise private contributions. The "special borrowing authority" in H.R. 1247 would undercut this linkage and set a new precedent that would be difficult, if not impossible, to contain in the future.
H.R. 1247 would increase direct spending; therefore, it is subject to the pay-as-you-go requirement of the Omnibus Budget and Reconciliation Act of 1990. This bill does not contain provisions to offset the increased direct spending of $65 million. Therefore, if the bill were enacted, its net budget costs could contribute to a sequester of mandatory programs.
H.R. 1476 – ESTABLISHMENT OF ADDITIONAL NATIONAL CEMETERIES
H.R. 1476 would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish a national cemetery in each of the three areas in the United States that the Secretary determines to be most in need of such a cemetery in order to serve the burial needs of veterans and their families. No later than 120 days after enactment, VA would furnish a report to Congress which identifies locations, projects, and construction timeframes, and estimated costs associated with each project.
The findings in two reports to Congress, one completed in 1987 and a
follow-up completed in 1994, have been, and will continue to be, the basis
for planning new national cemeteries. Each report identified the ten
geographic areas in the United States in which the need for burial space for
veterans is greatest based on concentrations of the veteran population. The
listings, however, do not commit VA to build national cemeteries in each
location, nor do they establish an order in which cemeteries may be built.
By the turn of the century, six new national cemeteries cited in the 1987 and 1994 reports to Congress will be operational. San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in California opened in 1992 and Tahoma National Cemetery, near Seattle, opened in 1997. The construction of four additional national cemeteries to serve veterans is currently underway. These new cemeteries are Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery near Chicago, Illinois; Saratoga National Cemetery near Albany, New York; Dallas/Fort Worth National Cemetery in Texas; and the Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery near Cleveland, Ohio. The establishment of these new cemeteries will allow us to offer a burial option to veterans and other eligible people in these areas until at least 2030.
VA will continue to evaluate the potential establishment of additional new national cemeteries in the remaining geographic areas identified in the two reports. The seven remaining areas identified in the 1987 and 1994 reports as being in greatest need are, in alphabetical order: Atlanta, Georgia; Detroit, Michigan; Miami, Florida; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Sacramento, California; and St. Louis, Missouri. If VA were required to choose three sites for new national cemeteries, the sites would be chosen from this list.
I am pleased to report that we have also made progress in the St. Louis
metropolitan area, which is currently served by Jefferson Barracks National
Cemetery. When the 1994 report to Congress was issued, Jefferson Barracks
was projected to exhaust its inventory of gravesites in 2002. Subsequent to
the 1994 report, additional land has been acquired to extend the service period of the cemetery to 2010, and $7.5 million was included in the Fiscal Year 1999 appropriations bill to develop this additional land.
In addition, we are following the intent of Congress by working to
award a contract to develop a master plan and design documents for a
potential cemetery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. We expect the contract award to
take place later this summer.
Based on VA’s most recent experience with the four new cemeteries under construction, we estimate an average cost of $18 million with a 5-7 year timeframe to establish a full-service cemetery. These averages are derived from the costs and timelines associated with establishment of the Saratoga, Dallas/Fort Worth, Abraham Lincoln, and Ohio Western Reserve national cemeteries.
We do not believe development of the report which would be required by this legislation is necessary, nor would it be cost-effective, because, as I have explained, we already have valid data regarding locations and costs and timeframes for construction of new national cemeteries.
VA is continuing to meet the burial needs of our nation’s veterans by providing service to more veterans each year. We therefore consider H.R. 1476 unnecessary and do not support its enactment.
H.R. 1663 – DESIGNATION OF NATIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR MEMORIAL
H.R. 1663 would designate a memorial honoring Medal of Honor recipients which is presently under construction at the Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, California, as the "National Medal of Honor Memorial."
We are aware of the recent dedication by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society (CMOHS) of a significant and costly memorial to Medal of Honor recipients at Indianapolis, Indiana. We are also aware of the Congressional Medal of Honor Museum in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. The memorial at the Riverside National Cemetery is presently under construction and planned for dedication later this year. Each of these sites has been developed, funded, and dedicated through the efforts of the CMOHS or its affiliated organizations and chapters. However, in VA’s negotiations and discussions with the local donating group, we were not made aware of, nor asked to support, a proposal for designation of the memorial as the "National Medal of Honor Memorial." The memorial was viewed as being a memorial at Riverside National Cemetery devoted to MOH recipients. In this regard, it is possible that designation of any one memorial as "the" national memorial could be seen as diminishing the status and importance of the other memorials and museums devoted to Medal of Honor issues or recipients.
Enactment of this bill would not affect VA operations, and for that reason we take no position on its merits. However, we recommend that the Committee solicit the views of the CMOHS.
H.R. 2040 – ASSESSMENT OF NATIONAL CEMETERIES
H.R. 2040 would require the Secretary to contract with one or more qualified organizations for the conduct of a study that would include an assessment of several matters relating to the national cemeteries under the jurisdiction of the National Cemetery Administration (NCA). Not later than one year after an organization enters into a contract with VA, the organization would be required to submit a report detailing the results of the study to the Secretary. The Secretary then would be required to transmit to the Committees on Veterans’ Affairs of the House of Representatives and the Senate, within 120 days, a copy of the report, together with any comments on the report that the Secretary determines appropriate.
VA does not support enactment of this bill in its present form; however, we do not object to some of the concepts embodied in the bill. We believe that some of the provisions may be duplicative of what the NCA is already accomplishing, and we have some other concerns. A step-by-step comment on the matters that a contracting organization would be required to assess under the bill follows.
(1) The one-time repairs required at each national cemetery to ensure a dignified and respectful setting appropriate to a national cemetery
While we believe a one-time snapshot of repairs needed at each national cemetery would be beneficial and would assist us in our planning, NCA already has in place a comprehensive "bottom-up" five-year construction planning process. Needs at all national cemeteries for maintenance, repair, construction, renovation, and expansion are identified annually, prioritized by urgency, and used to develop and justify requests for appropriations necessary to fund requirements in the annual budget and for projections for a five-year cycle. Regrettably, funding for all of the projects on our list is not always available. Because projects must compete for funding, NCA is faced annually with prioritizing projects. We determine if project funds should come from the Administration’s operating budget for maintenance and repair, from the minor construction account for projects estimated to cost less than $4 million, or from the major construction accounts for projects estimated to cost over $4 million. Ultimately, the issue has never been one of identifying suitable projects, but rather, the difficulty lies in funding them.
(2) The feasibility of making standards of appearance of national cemeteries commensurate with standards of appearance of the finest cemeteries in the world
NCA already uses customer-satisfaction measures as a means for obtaining feedback with respect to the appearance of our cemeteries. In fiscal year 1998, of those customers who responded to survey cards, 96.5 percent rated our national cemeteries from good to excellent in appearance, with 77 percent providing an excellent rating. Our goal is to reach a 100 percent "excellent" survey response by fiscal year 2003. We believe these survey results reflect the quality of our work.
We have a statutory commitment to maintain our cemeteries as national shrines, while at the same time fulfilling our burial mission. These national shrines must provide each veteran with a final resting place that reflects the dignity, honor, and respect he or she has earned. Regular, ongoing maintenance is required in burial sections, as well as in the infrastructure of all 115 national cemeteries. In 1998, these cemeteries consisted of 2.3 million gravesites, over 6,000 developed acres, more than 400 buildings, and other infrastructure such as roads, walks, fences, boundary walls, irrigation, electrical systems, and monuments.
Our continuous attention is required to maintain these grounds as national shrines. The reality, however, is that it is often difficult to achieve the same level of reflective, serene settings in cemeteries where burials still occur as may be found in other cemeteries, such as those under the jurisdiction of the ABMC, in which active burials generally have not occurred since the 1950’s. We do, however, achieve tranquility befitting a national shrine in those areas that no longer have burials, or where second interments are rare.
(3) The number of additional cemeteries that will be required for the interment and memorialization of veterans or other qualified persons who die after 2010
In assessing the number of national cemeteries that will be required in the future, the report contemplated by H.R. 2040 would identify, by 5-year periods beginning in 2010 and ending in 2030, the number of additional national cemeteries required during each 5-year period. The report would also identify, with respect to each 5-year period, the areas of the United States with the greatest concentrations of veterans whose needs are not served by national or state veterans" cemeteries. Our concern is that planning too far ahead can result in development of information that may not be useful. For example, the need for national cemeteries is based on veteran demographics. It would be extremely difficult to predict veteran migration patterns 20 or 30 years in advance. Furthermore, the need for, and location of, new national cemeteries may be affected by future wars or conflicts that cannot be predicted.
As I noted earlier, the 1987 and 1994 reports to Congress currently serve as the basis for NCA’s decisions regarding the planning and establishment of new national cemeteries. We are in the process of constructing four new national cemeteries and have dedicated two others (San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery and Tahoma National Cemetery) in areas identified in the reports. In addition to completing the construction of these four new cemeteries, more than 20 expansion projects will be completed and additional land will be acquired at 12 existing national cemeteries over the next two years.
These developments will allow us to ensure that 80 percent of veterans will have a burial option within 75 miles of their homes by 2004.
We believe that projecting possible national cemetery growth beyond 5 to 10 years would not provide valid information, as too many unknowns could come into play. We also believe that we already have valid data indicating where the next new national cemeteries should be constructed, if more are to be established.
(4) Improvements to burial benefits provided under current law, including a proposal to increase the plot allowance under 38 U.S.C. 2303(b)
We are concerned that this provision fails to provide an adequate indication of congressional intent to guide the contractor in framing recommendations. For example, it is unclear whether such recommendations would be based on a concept of full coverage of the cost of funerals, plots, markers, and burials, of partial coverage of these costs, or on other factors.
Mr. Chairman, as the Committee considers the action it may take with respect to this bill, we urge that the potential for unnecessary duplication of effort and the other concerns we have noted be recognized. In view of the concerns we have noted, we cannot support the enactment of H.R. 2040 in its present form.
H.R. 1484 – AUTHORIZATION OF APPROPRIATIONS FOR HOMELESS VETERANS PROJECTS
Mr. Chairman, you have also asked us to comment on H.R. 1484, which would authorize appropriations for homeless veterans reintegration projects under the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act. The Department of Labor’s Homeless Veterans Reintegration Project (HVRP), a program that effectively maneuvers veterans out of homelessness, has been very effective, and the Department of Labor has worked very closely with our Department and programs administered by grantees under our Homeless Grant and Per Diem Program. HVRP provides nationally competitive direct grants to non-profit groups in both urban and rural settings. Grantees make referrals to other service providers to address needs of the veterans (including referrals to VA for medical care and benefits assistance) as well as providing (paying for) clothing, shelter and transportation.
While the Department of Labor’s program is limited, serving approximately 2,200 veterans with approximately $3 million in funding, the results have been extremely beneficial. HVRP has been very helpful in limited settings in assisting more than 1,800 veterans in obtaining employment at an average cost of $1,700 per placement.
VA works closely with HVRP, and we are pleased to support the continuation of this program at the level of the Administration’s Budget request for Fiscal Year 2000.
H.R. 1603 – HOUSING LOAN ENTITLEMENT FOR RESERVISTS
Lastly, Mr. Chairman, H.R. 1603 would make permanent the entitlement for VA housing loan benefits currently given to persons whose only military service was in the Reserves (including the National Guard).
Prior to October 28, 1992, in order to qualify for VA housing loan benefits a veteran was required to have served on active duty, other than active duty for training, in the Armed Forces. Generally, a person must have served at least 90 days on active duty during a period of war, or 181 consecutive days during a non-war period, in order to qualify for this benefit. (Veterans who first entered service after September 7, 1980, must also satisfy the minimum service requirements contained in section 5303A of title 38, United States Code.) Persons whose only service was in the reserve components and who never served on extended active duty did not qualify. Public Law 102-547 granted VA housing loan entitlement to persons not otherwise eligible who served for 6 years in the Selected Reserve, including the National Guard. In most cases, persons whose entitlement is derived from service in the Reserves are required to pay a higher VA funding fee. For example, for a no-downpayment loan to a veteran who has not previously used his or her VA loan benefits, the fee paid would be
2 percent of the loan amount. The fee paid by a reservist for the same loan would be 2.75 percent of the loan amount.
Loan entitlement based on Reserve service will not expire until
September 30, 2003. VA supports this benefit, but we are in the process of evaluating all our programs and will be better prepared to comment on this benefit and its interactions with other VA benefits after our evaluation of the loan program is complete.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony.