MR. KEITH PEDIGO
ASSOCIATE DEPUTY UNDER SECRETARY
FOR POLICY AND PROGRAM MANAGEMENT
VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
SUBCOMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY
HOUSE COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
HEARING ON LEGISLATION AFFECTING
VETERANS' BENEFIT PROGRAMS
April 16, 2008
Madam Chairwoman and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, I am pleased to be here today to discuss a number of bills that would affect several benefit programs administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs ( VA). Accompanying me today is Mr. John Brizzi, Staff Attorney, Office of General Counsel. At the outset, I would note that several bills on the agenda affect programs or laws administered, respectively, by the Departments of Defense ( DoD) and Labor ( DOL). Accordingly, my testimony today does not address the following bills: H.R. 3298 and H.R. 4883 (Servicemembers Civil Relief Act amendments - DoD), and H.R. 3393 and H.R. 3798 (veterans' reemployment rights amendments - DOL). VA respectfully defers to the views of those Departments with regard to these bills.
Madam Chairwoman, your bill, H.R. 5684, the "Veterans Education Improvement Act of 2008," contains numerous amendments to title 38, United States Code, that are intended to improve the basic educational assistance programs administered by VA. If enacted, H.R. 5684 would accomplish the following:
Furthermore, as noted in the State of the Union address, the President is committed to expanding MGIB to include transferability of benefits from servicemembers to their spouses and children. The Administration's first priority is to transfer the benefit to family members of those committed to a career in service, an initiative our senior uniformed leaders enthusiastically support and one that is more supportive of the current makeup and retention of the all-volunteer force. VA defers to DoD on how the various legislative proposals will affect DoD's ability to recruit and retain the all-volunteer force. As a result, VA cannot support this bill in lieu of the Administration's transferability proposal, which will be transmitted shortly. We offer the following comments on how the several provisions of H.R. 5684 would affect program implementation:
Madam Chairwoman, H.R. 4889, the "Guard and Reserves Are Fighting Too Act of 2008," proposes to recodify the statutory provisions of chapter 1607 of title 10, United States Code (Educational Assistance for Reserve Component Members Supporting Contingency Operations and Certain Other Operations (REAP)), in a new chapter 33 of title 38, United States Code. Under current law, educational assistance under a program established under the authority of 10 U.S.C. § 16162 is paid to entitled servicemembers by the Education Benefits Fund at the Department of Defense ( DoD) through the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
VA does not support H.R. 4889. This bill would inappropriately place a reserve force management program under VA rather than the DoD where it currently resides. Additionally, the current funding structure for the REAP program is sound budget and programmatic policy because it helps ensure policymakers fully consider the cost of promised future benefits when making personnel and benefit decisions. We also note that several sections of H.R. 4889 would need to be amended to align the proposed chapter 33 codification with REAP as it currently exists in title 10.
Finally, we cannot support this proposal without identified offsets for the additional $1.2 billion in direct benefit net costs that VA would bear over the next 10 years. Since the effective date for this bill would be October 1, 2009, there is no funding impact in fiscal year 2009. While VA funding needs would increase by $183.2 million in FY 2010, $718.9 million over 5 years, and nearly $1.6 billion over 10 years, the anticipated transfers from DoD's Education Benefit Trust Fund ( EBTF) totaling approximately $383.2 million, partially offset VA's appropriation requests for the Readjustment Benefit ( RB) account. The initial transfer from EBTF of $183.2 million covers the entire FY 2010 resource requirement; therefore the VA RB appropriation for FY 2010 would not be affected. A subsequent transfer of approximately $200 million from the EBTF to the RB account, results in a net increase of $335.7 million over 5 years, and nearly $1.2 billion over 10 years in VA's RB appropriation request. Because VA currently administers the REAP benefit for DoD, the administrative or staffing impacts of H.R. 4889 would be minimal/negligible.
H.R. 3467, the "Second Chance for America's Veterans Act," would establish a grant program for referral and counseling services to assist at-risk veterans transitioning from institutional living into the workplace. The bill is intended to reduce recidivism, increase employment, and assist these veterans in locating permanent housing. The Administration supports the intent of the bill. However, we would note that most of the services proposed under this legislation, which mirrors the recently concluded Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program (IVTP), could be provided through the Second Chance Act, which the President signed into law last week. Among other things, the Second Chance Act formally authorizes key features of the Prisoner Re-entry Initiative, which provides recently released ex-offenders-including veterans-the support and services they need to successfully reintegrate into mainstream society.
Madam Chairwoman, H.R. 3646 would direct the Secretaries of Veterans Affairs and Labor to conduct a joint study, with annual updates, on the fields of employment for which the greatest need for employees exists in various geographic regions, as determined by the Secretaries. The bill would also require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to make the findings of the study (with the annual updates) available on VA's Internet website. We defer to DOL on this issue. VA does not support H.R. 3646.
H.R. 3889 would amend chapter 31 of title 38, United States Code, by adding a new section 3122 to require VA to conduct a 20-year longitudinal study of a statistically valid sample of the veterans who begin participating in a program of vocational rehabilitation under that chapter during fiscal year 2008. The annual report would include any data necessary to determine the long-term outcomes of those veterans included in the study. Data elements could be added as necessary, but the report would contain at least the following information collected during the year covered by the report:
H.R. 4539, the "Department of Veterans Affairs Loan Guaranty Cost Reduction Act of 2007," would amend title 38, United States Code, to make several key changes to the home loan guaranty benefit veterans currently enjoy. While we do not object to certain provisions of this bill, we would not support its enactment in its present form.
The bill would amend the maximum guaranty entitlement available to veterans for purchase, construction and refinancing loans. Currently the maximum guaranty amount is 25 percent of the Freddie Mac conforming loan limitation, for a single family home, as adjusted annually. This means that the current VA maximum guaranty is $104,250 on a no-downpayment loan of $417,000. In high cost areas, defined by Freddie Mac as Alaska, Guam, Hawaii, and the Virgin Islands, the maximum guaranty amount is $156,375 on a no-downpayment loan of $625,500.
H.R. 4539 would increase the maximum guaranty amount so that it would be equal to 25 percent of 125 percent of the Freddie Mac conforming loan limit. Because lenders generally accept the 25 percent guaranty in lieu of a downpayment, an increase to the maximum guaranty translates into more purchasing power for veterans.
Two proposals in H.R. 4539 would make changes to the VA funding fee. First, the statutory funding fees would be extended to October 1, 2017. Second, the funding fee would be capped so that the highest funding fee a veteran would pay would be based on the Freddie Mac conforming loan limitation in effect on the date of enactment, not necessarily the limitation in effect at the time of loan origination. For example, if this bill were enacted today, a veteran obtaining a $450,000 loan in January of 2009 would pay a funding fee based on today's Freddie Mac loan limitation of $417,000.
Funding fee collections are used to offset the costs of paying claims and other expenses incurred by the Department as part of providing the home loan benefit to veterans. . VA opposes capping the funding fee based on the current conforming loan limitation. H.R. 4539 would increase the maximum amount of a VA housing loan guarantee by 25 percent; VA would need to increase the funding fee to offset additional costs (or reduced savings) associated with this increase.
H.R. 4539 would also increase the maximum guaranty amount for certain refinance loans, sometimes referred to as "regular" refinances, while eliminating the existing equity requirement. Currently, the law limits VA's guaranty of regular refinance loans to $144,000, and limits the size of these loans to 90 percent of the value of the security for the loan. This means that a veteran who has no equity in his or her home is able to obtain a regular VA refinance loan for only 90 percent of the home's appraised value, and the maximum loan he or she may effectively borrow is $144,000. The statutory changes proposed in H.R. 4539 would provide many veterans who obtained conventional or subprime mortgages with an avenue to refinance into a VA guaranteed home loan. However, borrowers with higher loan-to-value (LTV) ratios have a higher incidence of default than otherwise comparable borrowers. Removing the 90 percent LTV cap on VA "regular" refinances would therefore introduce additional risk and cost to the VA guaranteed housing loan portfolio.
H.R. 4539 further would increase the guaranty available to a veteran whose income "is below a maximum income amount" (as determined by the Secretary) for purposes of purchasing "affordable housing". Additionally, VA would be required to use $14 million of the Veterans Housing Benefit Program Fund to reduce closing costs for VA guaranteed home loans for affordable homes. We cannot support either of these proposals. First, VA lacks the requisite expertise, staffing, and statutory mandate to address the myriad issues involved in affordable housing programs. Additionally, administering the closing-cost provision of this bill would be difficult at best, given the fixed amount of money available for the assistance. We also note that $14 million over 10 years ($1.4 million each year) would yield an insignificant amount of assistance to veterans. If we estimate that 20 percent of last year's 130,000 loans were made to "low-income" veterans for purchase of "affordable housing," each of those 26,000 veterans would receive only $53 in closing-cost assistance.
Finally, we would like to point out two technical problems in the bill as it is drafted. First, section 2(b)(1) refers to a non-existent 38 U.S.C. § 3729(b)(2)(C)(iii). We believe the correct citation should be to section 3729(b)(2)(C)(ii). Second, we believe that section 2(g)(2) of the bill would create a statutory inconsistency within the Veterans Housing Benefit Program Fund. Currently, the Veterans Housing Benefit Program Fund expressly precludes loans made pursuant to the Native American Direct Loan Program. Therefore, by referring to 38 U.S.C. § 3762 (the Native American Direct Loan Program), the proposed change seems to conflict with existing 38 U.S.C. § 3722(e). VA estimates that H.R.4539 would result in a cost savings of $1.24 million in fiscal year 2008, $237.7 million by fiscal year 2013, and $1.8 billion over 10 years.
H.R. 4884, the "Helping our Veterans to Keep Their Homes Act of 2008," contains a number of proposals similar to provisions contained in H.R. 4539. While we do not object to certain provisions of this bill, we would not support enactment in its present form for the following reasons:
Section 2(a) of H.R. 4884 proposes to eliminate the equity requirement for regular refinance loans. As discussed earlier, elimination of the current requirement for a 10 percent equity position would provide veterans who obtained conventional or subprime loans an avenue to refinance into a VA home loan, but would also increase risk and cost in the VA guaranteed home loan portfolio.
Section 2(b) of H.R. 4884 would make the VA funding fee a flat 1 percent of the total loan amount. Under current provisions found in 38 U.S.C. §3729(b), the funding fee ranges from 0.05 percent on a rate reduction loan, up to 3.30 percent of the loan amount for no-downpayment loans to veterans who have had more than one VA guaranteed loan (not counting a rate reduction loan).
Funding fee collections are used to offset the costs of paying claims and other expenses incurred by the Department as part of providing the home loan benefit to veterans. The current fee structure on VA guaranteed housing loans appropriately targets the highest fees to the highest risk loans. VA opposes changes to its fee structure that would encourage risky borrowing practices by lowering fees on the riskiest kinds of loans. Such changes would also likely result in additional cost to VA...
Subsections 2(c) and 2(d) of H.R. 4884 would extend VA's authority to conduct its demonstration projects on adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) and hybrid ARMs, as VA's authority to offer these options to veterans expires in fiscal year 2008. Since the inception of this project, VA has guaranteed over 227,000 ARMs and hybrid ARMs, making up approximately 11 percent of VA's business.
At this time, we do not object to making the provisions of 38 U.S.C. §§ 3707 and 3707A permanent, provided Congress identifies offsets for the increased direct spending.
H.R. 4884 also proposes an increase in the maximum guaranty amount. This provision is similar to that contained in H.R. 4539. However, H.R. 4884 would increase the maximum guaranty amount to 25 percent of 150 percent of the Freddie Mac conforming loan limit, which would enable veterans to purchase homes in more costly areas.
Section 2(f) of H.R. 4884 would provide for an annual increase in the amount of guaranty by applying the 12-month increase in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers. This provision, as drafted, would conflict with the current method for increasing the maximum guaranty -- the statutory tie to the Freddie Mac conforming loan limit. As such, we cannot support this proposal as drafted.
Finally, Section 2(g) of this bill calls on the Department to review and streamline the process of guaranteeing loans obtained in conjunction with the purchase of condominiums. We agree that it is appropriate to conduct such a review and have already begun the process by reviewing our existing regulatory requirements regarding condominiums.
VA estimates that H.R.4884 would result in a cost savings of $8.1 million in fiscal year 2008, but would cost the Government $168.7 million by fiscal year 2013, and $1.93 billion over 10 years.
H.R. 5664 would amend 38 U.S.C. § 2103 to require that the Secretary update VA's plans and specifications for suitable adapted housing at least once every 6 years. VA does not support enactment of this bill.
Currently, section 2103 authorizes the Secretary to furnish, without cost, model plans and specifications of suitable housing units to eligible veterans. VA does this by providing our Handbook for Design: Specially Adapted Housing ( VA Pamphlet 26-13) to all veterans who are eligible for Specially Adapted Housing assistance. This handbook is intended to educate the veteran and his or her family on the types of adaptations that may improve the safety of the home, as well as increasing the veteran's independence. In addition, VA hopes to increase the architect's sensitivity to the needs of severely injured veterans and stimulate awareness of the design challenges he or she may face during the planning stage. On a practical level, this handbook provides model design assistance to our severely injured veteran population, as well as their architects to assist them in developing construction plans to provide the best possible homes for these veterans.
We agree that it is important to maintain models that are current and that incorporate new technologies as they become available. VA believes this type of guidance should be kept modern and up-to-date in order to provide the most beneficial assistance to this special population of veterans. As such, we are now in the process of updating the current handbook, and we would anticipate updating it every 3 or 4 years, or more frequently, as industry or veterans' needs require. We do not believe legislation is required to ensure that this handbook is updated and, therefore, do not support HR 5664.
VA anticipates no costs associated with enactment of this provision during the first 5 years, but we estimate a cost of $122,000 over 10 years.
H.R. 3681, the "Veterans Benefits Awareness Act of 2007," would add a new section 532 to title 38, United States Code, to authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to purchase advertising in national media outlets for the purpose of promoting awareness of benefits under laws administered by the Secretary. Madam Chairwoman, we do not believe enactment of this bill is needed. Current law provides sufficient authority for the Secretary to purchase such advertising, as appropriate. Therefore, we do not support enactment of this bill.
Madam Chairwoman, this concludes my testimony. I would be pleased to respond to any questions you or other Members of the Subcommittee may have.