Spat exposes GOP insensitivity to vets

The Capitol Hill curtains parted this week, offering an uncommon view of a behind-the-scenes spat that has pitted a House GOP leader against the chief of a mighty advocacy group and spurred Democrats to take gleeful advantage of the dispute.

And, igniting it all was an office clerk’s apparent flub.

The sniping between House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Steve Buyer, R-Ind., and Thomas Bock, the national commander of the 2.7 million-member American Legion, has centered on an annual event that Buyer has decided to kill.

For 50 years, military veterans by the hundreds have trekked to Capitol Hill for a hearing each September that is held by the House and Senate committees in charge of the issues and programs they hold dear.

Each September, veterans groups _ the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans, to name a few _ have presented their views on what issues are foremost and what the upcoming budget should contain.

Mindful of the grass-roots clout the vets’ groups wield, lawmakers commonly display deference and respect to the leaders of the organizations, and make a point of touting their own commitment to standing strong with veterans on health care and other benefit issues. The joint hearings of the House and Senate veterans affairs committees are must-attend events.

So, it came as a slap in the face to Bock to learn, via a letter from Buyer, that the joint hearings would be no more. Instead, Buyer said he intended to hold a series of hearings in February _ after the White House releases the administration budget for the year.

Buyer’s decision came at a “veterans summit” he hosted Nov. 7 at Carlisle Barracks, Pa. The chairman informed Bock of the change in a Nov. 10 letter, which included a subtle dig at the Legion for not attending the meeting: “It is unfortunate that the American Legion chose not to send a representative,” the letter said.

Turns out the reason for Bock’s absence was a mistake by a committee clerk using outdated information. The Legion’s invitation was addressed to a past president of the organization. By the time the error was detected, it was too late for Bock to rearrange his schedule and go.

In a Nov. 14 reply to Buyer, Bock blasted the chairman for his “condescending” dig, which Bock said the Legion’s senior staff found “insulting and patronizing.”

“You can say anything you want about me as a person and a veteran, but when you are communicating to the national commander of the American Legion, or any other veterans service organization, a modicum of respect is owed and, as far as we can tell, precious little was paid,” Bock’s letter said.

The commander was equally upset at the hearing changes Buyer instituted, charging they would dilute the ability of veterans groups to effectively advocate on health care and other matters.

Buyer, who took over the committee chairmanship when GOP leaders removed Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., in January, already was less than beloved by veterans groups. One reason Smith was ousted was that he regularly pushed for sweeter benefits and positions than those backed by the Bush administration, according to veterans-group insiders.

Buyer, currently a colonel in the Army Reserve yet big on holding the Department of Veterans Affairs accountable and minding the budget, said the change he sought for the hearing date is intended to enhance the effectiveness of the veterans’ hearings.

Under the new schedule, they would come closer to the time that Capitol Hill receives the administration budget in January, he wrote.

“The current process does not take full advantage of your input, as your views come after major budget decisions already have been made,” Buyer wrote. “This constructive reform will bring more accountability to the budget process and ensure that you have a greater input in the process.”

That argument holds little water for Bock. “(T)he reason the American Legion testifies currently in September is so that our membership’s views on the budget and other veterans’ concerns will by noted by the president, (the Office of Management and Budget, Department of Veterans Affairs) and your committee four months before the administration’s budget proposal is submitted to Congress,” Bock wrote.

It wasn’t long before Democrats on the House committee jumped in, siding with the Legion, vowing to hold their own hearings, and laying their pro-veteran language on thick.

“This type of open communication, particularly with a constituency as deserving and as vital as the veteran community, must continue to remain the hallmark of our democracy. We will not participate in the erosion of this critical process,” said a Nov. 14 letter signed by all 12 Democratic members of the panel.

(They were Democratic Reps. Tom Udall of New Mexico; Ted Strickland of Ohio; Silvestre Reyes of Texas; Corrine Brown of Florida; Bob Filner of California; Lane Evans and Luis Gutierrez, both of Illinois; Vic Snyder of Arkansas; Michael Michaud of Maine; Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota; Darlene Hooley of Oregon; and Shelley Berkley of Nevada.)

The spat returned behind closed doors late this week, with Buyer and panel Democrats trying to negotiate a solution to the hearing controversy, according to Brooke Adams, a committee spokesman.

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)