House lawmakers on Wednesday approved plans for a $300-billion plus Veterans Affairs budget with language barring any spending on the controversial Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, the latest blow to efforts to shutter aging veterans hospitals across the country.
In a bipartisan 238-189 vote, lawmakers approved language that would shift $5 million in funding for the review plans to homeless veterans support programs instead.
The move comes a month after key Senate leaders — including Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont. — said they planned to block the effort by refusing to confirm the nine nominees presented by the White House for the commission.
Officials in both chambers said they were unhappy with the recommendations for medical facility realignment presented by VA leaders earlier this year, which called for 35 Veterans Affairs Medical Centers in 21 different states to be closed or completely reconstructed as part of a nearly $2 trillion infrastructure overhaul.
“The recommendations advanced so far as part of the VA’s Asset and Infrastructure Review process will lead to the closure or downsizing of nearly one third of this country’s VA medical facilities and community-based outpatient clinics,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., chairman of the House Rules Committee and sponsor of the amendment, in a floor speech on Wednesday.
“I believe that is unacceptable and frankly a rotten way to treat veterans who have put their lives on the line for this country. This entire process is a backdoor way to cut services for veterans.”
VA officials have said they have nearly 1,000 non-vacant but underused facilities spread across the country, creating a significant drain on department resources. Closing many of them would require an act of Congress.
That was supposed to be the job of the AIR Commission, approved by lawmakers in 2018 to mimic the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure process.
Following the VA Secretary’s recommendations for facility changes, the nine-member commission was scheduled to spend a year analyzing the moves and meeting with local officials to offer its own recommendations to the White House.
The language included in the House bill approved Wednesday won’t become law until after lengthy budget negotiations with senators in coming months, but it serves as another indicator that the commission won’t be able to meet its spring 2023 timeline for that White House report.
In passing the amendment removing the commission’s funding, 43 Republicans joined with 195 Democrats. Only 27 Democrats joined with 164 Republicans to oppose the plan.
Several conservative leaders have decried the end of the AIR effort in recent weeks, saying it leaves VA with an outdated and bloated infrastructure.
“This process is vital for the future of modern, state-of-the-art VA care,” House Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Mike Bost, R-Ill., said in a statement late last month. “[Abandoning the commission] does an immense disservice to veterans and VA staff who will feel its repercussions for years to come.”
In a press conference with reporters on Wednesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said that efforts to improve the department’s infrastructure will continue despite the commission setbacks.
“We will continue to update [local] assessments,” he said. “That will then inform our internal infrastructure modernization plans, and we will continue that work on our own accord.”
The VA budget plan — the largest in department history — was approved by a largely party-line 220-207 vote as part of a more than $400 billion package that also included planned fiscal 2023 spending for the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and Agriculture.
Senate leaders have not yet said when they plan to hold a vote on their drafts of the VA appropriations plans for next fiscal year.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.