VA reform laws are rare legislative bright spot in 2017 for Trump, Congress

As President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed another bill into law that was designed to make internal reforms at the Department of Veterans Affairs, it was a fresh reminder that one of the few areas of legislative success for Congress and the Trump Administration in 2017 has come on a subject that has drawn strong bipartisan cooperation, with the simple goal of ensuring better treatment for the nation’s veterans.

“To fulfill our great patriotic duties, we must take care of our great veterans,” the President said in a speech to the American Legion in Reno, Nevada, where he later signed into law a bill that modernizes the benefits claims appeals process at the VA, to help speed decisions for veterans.

In Congress, the scandal that erupted three years ago at the Phoenix VA set in motion a steadily increasing number of legislative efforts over the last year, almost totally devoid of any partisan sniping.

“We don’t have Republican casualties and Democratic casualties,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), the Chairman of the Senate Veterans Committee, earlier this year of the push to reform the VA.

On this latest law signed by the President, Isakson said it was a bureaucratic situation that cried out for action by Congress.

“For far too long, our veterans have faced unacceptable delays in their claims appeals,” Isakson said on Wednesday.

“With this legislation, we’re going to reduce the time it takes for our veterans to get a decision and increase the opportunity for them to receive their just benefits,” he added.

Along with the bill approved by Mr. Trump on Wednesday, five substantive pieces of legislation have been signed into law so far this year on veterans matters; other laws include:

+ The “Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act,” which makes it easier for the VA to fire problem employees; the law also strengthens legal protections for whistleblowers, who have been targeted by superiors for revealing internal troubles at the VA.

+ The “Veterans Choice Program Improvement Act,” which strengthens the ‘Choice Program’ that allows vets to seek care outside the VA system, in a bid to ensure that veterans don’t face lengthy treatment delays.

+ The “Increasing the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability to Veterans Act of 2017,” which allows officials to reduce the pension of senior federal officials if they were convicted of a felony related to their job performance at the VA.

+ The “Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017,” which is designed to improve veterans education benefits, as well as enhance the post-9/11 G.I. Bill.

Obviously, getting consensus on VA issues is a bit different than finding common ground on high profile issues like tax reform, health care, money for the border wall, the budget and more – but it is a reminder that bipartisanship is still possible between Democrats and Republicans in the Congress.

For President Trump – legislation to improve the VA is one of the biggest legislative success stories that he has had in his first seven months in office, along with 14 measures that were approved to roll back specific rules and regulations from the Obama Administration.

But the rest of the Trump agenda remains in limbo, as Congress will try to address health care, taxes, spending bills, the debt limit and much more when lawmakers return to legislative work after Labor Day.

In 1986 – the last time Congress enacted major tax reform – the final plan was bipartisan, netting 292 votes in the House and 74 in the Senate.

Bipartisanship is possible on the VA – and major issues as well – but it takes some work along the way.

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