Weekly Columns

Those looking for an example of how Washington can find common ground should look no further than the important work Congress has done, and continues to do, for veterans. The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s hearing room is traditionally one of the most bipartisan places in Washington. It is also one of the busiest. 

Last Congress, under Chairman Johnny Isakson’s leadership, we held thirty hearings, considered fifty-six pieces of legislation and sent seventeen of President Trump’s nominees to serve our veterans to the full Senate.  

That spirit of cooperation continued on the Senate floor. Last Congress, the Senate passed twenty-three major pieces of veterans-related legislation. As a result, the President signed into law bills that significantly enhance healthcare, education, retirement and other benefits for our veterans. 

Now comes the heavy lift of implementing those new laws, some of which are quite significant. This list includes the VA MISSION Act, which is a major overhaul of how veterans receive health care, and the Forever GI Bill, which significantly updates their educational benefits. While the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) works to implement the changes brought about by these new statutes, it’s also undertaking one of the largest information technology modernization projects in our nation’s history. The VA simply cannot successfully accomplish all of this without working collaboratively with Congress. 

In the spirit of cooperation, the leadership of the Congressional committees that share oversight responsibilities of the department recently sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to request that the department work closely with Congress throughout the implementation process. As the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies, I was one of the eight cosigners of this letter.  

The letter represents a good faith outreach effort from the critical members of Congress who will be overseeing the VA’s efforts. It is aimed at ensuring there is an ongoing, positive dialogue between Congress and the VA throughout the process. This message was echoed during a recent subcommittee hearing I chaired about the VA’s implementation of its new electronic health record system.

With all of these reforms underway simultaneously, it is vital for VA to share information openly–even pre-decisional information–so that we can work together and have a common understanding of the impact of changes, including costs, and are able to assess challenges that may arise. 

We share the common goal of VA’s success, and our hope is that early, frequent and fully transparent dialogs will allow the VA and Congress to jointly head off the kind of serious missteps we have seen in some recent implementation efforts. All of the changes being implemented require VA to be more open, transparent, complete and candid when engaging with Congress in the critical implementation stages of these programs.  

Congress must be a full and true partner in the implementation of critical laws and initiatives. I believe that Secretary Wilkie agrees with us in that regard and will work hand-in-hand with us to ensure that the many positive changes Congress has passed into law for our veterans have the intended impact.