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Monday, August 15, 2016

Back to Work: Supporting Veterans & Military Bases

One of the many things Oklahoma does with excellence is taking care of our military – a fact known across the Department of Defense and the nation.

Because of the strong community support surrounding our five major military installations and our National Guard, Oklahoma is consistently being considered for new growth and investments from DoD and the defense industry, such as the new MC-12W mission at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base and Boeing opening an $80 million facility that will support new, well-paying jobs here in Oklahoma. And while the Obama administration has cut our military down to a dangerously small size – a size not seen since before World War II – Oklahoma has also remained an attractive place to base military units that are critical components for our national security.

A cornerstone of support for our military bases is the Military Construction (MilCon) and Veterans Affairs (VA) Appropriations Act that Congress should be sending to the president’s desk every year. This year, the Republican-led Senate worked to move this bill through regular order, a process meant to enforce transparency in how agencies are spending your taxpayer dollars and ensure funding is received before the end of the fiscal year.

In April, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the MilCon-VA Appropriations bill with full support of all 30 committee members, Republicans and Democrats. The Majority Leader then brought the bill forward in May, where the Senate debated and amended the legislation before passing it by a vote of 89 to 8. During this process, my colleagues adopted an amendment Sen. Lankford and I authored to redirect $18 million within the bill to the Veterans Integrated Services Networks (VISN) for the purpose of allowing VA directors to contract with outside entities to investigate and audit their VA medical facilities.

Since the U.S. House of Representatives had also passed its version of the MilCon-VA Appropriations bill, the two chambers went into conference. Conference is where Members from both the House and the Senate work out the differences between the two bills to achieve a final product. The conferenced MilCon-VA bill was introduced a few weeks later and faced a simple final vote in both chambers. Unfortunately, when that vote came up on June 28, Senate Democrats blocked the bill from progressing to final passage.

What does this mean for Oklahoma? Let’s take a moment to look at what was in the final legislation:

  • Would include $77 million, as authorized in the Senate FY’17 NDAA, for military construction at Oklahoma’s bases:
    • Altus Air Force Base: $11.6 million to complete the KC-46 Simulator Facility Phase 2
    • Tinker Air Force Base: $17 million for the KC-46A Depot System Fuel Laboratory and $26 million for AWACS Mission and Flight Simulator Training Facility
    • Ardmore, Okla.: $22 million for a new National Guard Readiness Center
  • Would include a 4.1 percent funding increase for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which would be put toward improving benefit claims processing, provide for more inspections of VA medical facilities, and increase veterans’ access to quality care.
  • Would include $900 million to modernize VA hospitals to the standards of private hospitals, if it isn’t already, and to provide for new construction to increase access to care.

I have been an outspoken proponent of improving veterans’ care and holding the VA accountable for the services it provides. The MilCon-VA legislation is a step in the right direction for our veterans as well as for supporting our military bases in Oklahoma and our military families across the nation.  

When the Senate returns in September, we will be weeks away from another fiscal cliff. Senate Democrats will likely get another chance to change their unreasonable opposition to this MilCon-VA funding bill. I hope they will vote like they first did back in May, when we had a showing of strong bipartisan support for our military and our veterans.   Time to put the election season aside for a moment and do what is in the best interest for our nation and for the men and women who have served and continue to serve to make it great.