The House, seeking to do what three decades of Congresses before it have tried and failed to accomplish, voted 399 to 17 Tuesday to raise the Veterans Administration to the status of a Cabinet department.
The Senate also appears likely to approve the legislation, already endorsed by President Reagan, which would put veterans affairs under the auspices of a 14th Cabinet department.
Responsibility for operating a national network of hospitals and cemeteries and providing other benefits and services for veterans now falls under the Veterans Administration, an agency with a $27-billion budget that is second only to the Defense Department in number of workers.
Supporters contend that establishing a Department of Veterans Affairs as a permanent part of the Cabinet would establish veterans issues as a high national priority and provide direct and deserved access to the President.
Since the end of the Korean War, lawmakers and veterans groups have tried to elevate veterans affairs to Cabinet rank. This year, several factors came together to accomplish the goal.
These factors include an intensified lobbying effort in recent months by veterans groups, signs of increased dissatisfaction with the Office of Management and Budget’s handling of some veterans programs and the surprise support for the move last week from President Reagan, who has opposed creating new Cabinet agencies in the past.
Under the Reagan Administration, veterans have been “relegated to communicating with the President through the OMB and the White House staff, rather than having a real line of communications themselves,” said Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), one of the bill’s chief sponsors.
“Our veterans now deserve a cohesive structure at the highest possible level” of government, said Rep. Frank Horton (R-N.Y.), another of the bill’s early sponsors. “The time has come.”
Hearings Moved Up
In the Senate, hearings on making veterans affairs a Cabinet department have been moved up from February to December, indicating that it is likely to follow the House in approving the new agency.
But one Senate source close to the issue said that support there is “lukewarm” and “dispassionate,” with some senators privately concerned that Cabinet-level representation will make U.S. veterans--now numbering about 27.6 million--a disproportionately powerful constituency in Washington.
While sponsors maintain that promoting the VA will mean only a negligible increase in administrative costs, some senators fear that the move would inevitably result in a larger bureaucracy and bigger budgets.
However, no senators have yet publicly opposed the move and its passage appears “a foregone conclusion,” a Senate staff member said.
In response to critics who charge that the VA is only an administrative agency that writes benefit checks, Rep. G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said Tuesday:
“The VA achieves more in human rehabilitation and has helped more persons overcome disabilities than any other federal agency. As an employer, its record of hiring the disabled and promoting their worth is unsurpassed by any employer, public or private.
“From issues of human survival, affordable housing, providing the means by which several generations of Americans have gone on to higher education to promoting the value and the dignity of the disabled, the VA is far more than a check-cutter and a purveyor of undeserved benefits.”