WELLS: Democrats Use House Veterans’ Committee For Partisan Politics — And They’ve Forgotten Veterans

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John B. Wells Contributor
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As the 116th Congress prepares to re-open, bipartisanship may remain a lofty goal, but a worthy one nonetheless. It is time for members of Congress to reflect on the degradation of partisan activities within the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (HVAC).

For over a decade, I have walked the halls of Congress, urging members of both parties to work together on veterans’ issues — from religious freedom to expanded healthcare benefits. During much of that decade, I have seen resounding success. While Democrats and Republicans became increasingly polarized, the committee was often an island of bipartisanship in a vast sea of deep-seated divisions — until 2019, when it all fell apart.

With the House Democrats’ ascension came a new chairman, Democratic California Rep. Mark Takano, who never served in the U.S. military. Of course, Takano was not the first non-veteran to take the helm of the committee, but he is by far the most partisan.

Under his “leadership,” Republican members have been denied the opportunity to bring up amendments to pending legislation. Republicans have repeatedly been gaveled down when trying to make parliamentary inquiries, with Takano accusing them of adding “toxic, partisan amendments.”

What were these “partisan” amendments? One had to do with VA day care credentialing, while the other involved Second Amendment rights — the very real fear that the VA would come after the firearms of those who sought healthcare for post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues.

This is unprecedented. Unfortunately, it’s no longer surprising. The 116th Session began with questions and subpoenas concerning the “Mar-a-Lago Three,” who had played a role in the demise of former Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary David Shulkin. The current VA Secretary, Robert Wilkie, had repeatedly indicated that he did not have a relationship with the “Three.” group. Yet, instead of allowing Secretary Wilkie to move on, Takano insisted on attacking him time and time again.

A fervent supporter of impeachment, Takano took it upon himself to take down President Trump’s cabinet official, requesting all records of communication between the Mar-a-Lago members and their companies with current or former VA officials. This, despite the Senate confirming Secretary Wilkie in uncontroversial, bipartisan fashion.

Even worse, the situation isn’t improving. Takano’s partisan vitriol recently bubbled to the surface in a hearing on the Improve Well-Being for Veterans Act — a bipartisan bill introduced by Michigan Republican Rep. Jack Bergman, a retired Marine, and Democratic Pennsylvania Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, an Air Force veteran. Designed to enhance coordination and planning for veteran mental health and suicide prevention issues, the legislation was inevitably met with Takano’s outright skepticism. The HVAC chairman gleefully took the opportunity to berate Secretary Wilkie for supporting the bill, while inserting an unpopular amendment that nearly killed its passage.

Even when bipartisan legislation is introduced, Takano finds a way to undermine the political process. Perhaps the 116th Congress’ most important piece of bipartisanship was the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which confirmed disability benefits for Agent Orange-affected veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam — known as “Blue Water” Navy veterans. The bill was passed after the landmark decision in Procopio v. Wilkie by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, extending the presumption of exposure to veterans who served in the territorial sea.

However, Takano predictably chose to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, promoting a poorly worded piece of legislation that contained legal ambiguity and the provisions of an unnecessary stay of benefit processing. The VA, which initially sought to implement Procopio, immediately halted processing until this January — at the expense of countless veterans and their families.

My organization, Military Veterans Advocacy, asked for meetings with the HVAC’s Democratic majority staff on behalf of the affected veterans. To no avail: Our requests were not even acknowledged.

This can’t go on much longer. If Takano wishes to salvage the legacy of his HVAC chairmanship, he must return to the bipartisanship exhibited by his predecessors — Democrats and Republicans alike. One way for Takano to recover is by reaching out to Tennessee Republican Rep. Phil Roe and working together with Republicans to draft legislation that will expand veterans’ health benefits, while conducting a thorough, analytical oversight of the VA.

Both parties owe a debt to our nation’s 18 million veterans. The Veterans’ Affairs Committee is no place for partisan politics.

John B. Wells is an attorney and retired Navy commander who brought the case of Procopio v. Wilkie. He is the founder and litigation director of Military Veterans Advocacy.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.