Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has proposed using some of the funds currently set aside for US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to finance his proposed omnibus veterans bill, which would provide funding for healthcare, education, employment and, perhaps most important, restore some $6 billion in pensions that was cut in the last round of budget negotiations.
The funds would come from the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund, which has been used to pay for US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year the British Daily Telegraph newspaper reported on a Harvard University study which estimated that the cost of both wars to the taxpayer would be $6 trillion, equivalent to $75,000 for every US household.
In a stark reminder of the looming need for a major push on veterans’ care, the Telegraph commented that:
“The report, which builds on estimates in 2010 by Prof Bilmes and the Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz, highlights the stunning rise in long-term cost of treating veterans who both survive in greater numbers and seek treatment for a wider selection of ailments from back pain to post-traumatic stress disorders.”
Senator Sanders estimates that the package of benefits will cost $30 billion over the next ten years.
Although the senator is an Independent and a self-described democratic socialist, he caucuses with the Democratic Party on a range of issues, and has admitted that the bill will only pass with the help of Democrats in the Senate.
Sanders said that the bill has already received backing from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and that Leader Reid had filed the bill under Rule 14, which allows the legislation to bypass the committee stage. This means that it could be brought to the floor as soon as the Senate reconvenes. Senator Sanders pointed out that many of the measures included in the omnibus bill had already been approved, with bipartisan support, by the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Sanders said he was confident of working with his “friends” in the House on getting the final bill through Congress.
However one Republican aide has said that while the GOP supports the spirit of the bill, they questioned the viability of funding it through the OCO given its finite status. The aide, who declined to be named, said:
“That money is not a regular budget item and by design will run out once Overseas Contingency Operations have ended, and therefore is probably not the best vehicle to use as an offset.”
He went on to cite a 2012 CBO report which concluded that there was no OCO fund set aside in the Treasury which could be tapped in to for future spending. The aide suggested “a more piecemeal approach” to funding for veterans’ care.
Despite this, Senator Sanders is confident that there is both the political will and financial capital available to provide the level of care needed, which is likely to increase once the war in Afghanistan ends and thousands of US service personnel return home, many of whom will need short- and long-term medical and psychiatric care:
“I believe, having looked at this, that there is more than enough money in that fund to fund this legislation.”
h/t: Government Executive