Congress

Simple bill to help vets shows things in Congress aren’t so simple

U.S. Rep Vern Buchanan, a Republican from Sarasota, questions witnesses during a special meeting of Florida members of the U.S. House of Representatives to explore veterans’ health care in the state, during a special hearing June 12, 2014. On the left is Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat from West Boca Raton.
U.S. Rep Vern Buchanan, a Republican from Sarasota, questions witnesses during a special meeting of Florida members of the U.S. House of Representatives to explore veterans’ health care in the state, during a special hearing June 12, 2014. On the left is Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat from West Boca Raton. McClatchy

A bill that would create a uniform identification card for U.S. military veterans is in the final stages of its journey from idea to law, and is being seen both as a nice benefit for America’s fighting men and woman and an illustration of just how hard it can be to get anything through Congress.

Sponsored by U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Florida Republican who represents the Bradenton and Sarasota areas, the bill directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to issue a veteran’s identification card. Such a card would allow veterans to prove their status without having to carry around military service records, such as the common form known as a “DD-214.”

Those forms, Buchanan said, contain sensitive personal information such as veterans’ Social Security numbers, leaving them at a higher risk for identify theft. The VA does offer some veterans – those in the VA health system, for example – ID cards. But there is a large population of veterans who served honorably yet have no easy way to prove their military service.

“On the surface it doesn’t sound like a gigantic thing,” said Buchanan. “But at the end of the day it’s a very big thing for veterans. ... We’re very excited about it.”

The “Veterans Identification Card Act of 2015” was introduced on the first day of the current session of Congress and eventually picked up 82 co-sponsors, roughly divided between the two parties.

It passed the U.S. House in May by a vote of 402-0 and the Senate last month by unanimous consent. The bill has been endorsed by veterans’ groups, while others took no position on it. The bill is expected to go for final action in the House on Tuesday, where differences between House and Senate versions are expected to be easily passed; then it will go to the president for his signature.

The Obama administration, however, isn’t so enthusiastic. In testimony before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs last month, a top VA official, Rajiv Jain, said that veterans in most U.S. states can get veteran status noted on their drivers’ licenses and that such options “can meet the intent of the legislation without creating within VA a new program that may not be cost-efficient.”

In his prepared statement, Jain also said a new VA-issued ID card could create confusion among veterans, since other cards are specifically designed to help them get health care and other benefits. “Having several VA-issued cards creates the potential for confusion on several levels,” said Jain, an assistant deputy under secretary for health.

Diane M. Zumatto, the national legislative director for the advocacy organization AMVETS, sees the bill as a simple, cost-effective way to help veterans. As for the state options, she said those often aren’t enough: “The service we performed was federal, so the card should be federal,” she said.

“I just don’t see any drawback to the bill,” she said. “I understand there are many more critical things that are on the agenda for Congress. But hey, gather up these no-brainers and pass ’em.”

That’s easier said than done – even on a piece of legislation with such bipartisan, unanimous support.

Despite the simple nature of the bill and the fact that it is intended to be cost-neutral – veterans would pay a fee for their cards – it’s taken a long time to get such a bill through Congress. Similar legislation was introduced in 2011 and 2013 but went nowhere.

And that’s the way it is in Congress, where 535 representatives and senators all have bills but face limited time, energy and political capital to do anything about them.

Our calculation finds that the 113th just barely avoided the dubious title of ‘least productive Congress in modern history.’

Drew DeSilver, Pew Research Center

During the past two Congresses (from 2011 to 2014), for example, a total of 19,709 bills were introduced. Of those, less than 3 percent were enacted into law, according to congressional data. The nonpartisan Pew Research Center considered about two-thirds of those to be substantive and the rest ceremonial – renaming buildings and the like.

“None of these things are easy to get done, and usually they take a long time,” Buchanan said.

As for Buchanan, data from Congress.gov show that since joining Congress in 2007 he has been listed as the official sponsor of 42 bills. None has yet been signed into law; the veteran ID law is the first to pass both chambers.

That’s not to say his fingerprints aren’t on bills that did get enacted into law.

Some of his stand-alone bills were absorbed into larger bills that did get passed into law; a 2007 veteran job-training bill, for example, became part of a larger veterans’ bill. In 2014, his efforts helped gain additional funding to battle citrus greening, a major problem for Florida growers; that measure became part of a larger farm bill, so it wouldn’t be reflected in the count of stand-alone bills that became law.

“A lot of these bills were our bills initially, and then they get rolled up into other things,” he said. “But it’s always nice when you can start with a bill and then end it the way we’re going to do on this bill.”

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