Heller on veterans

Iraq, Afghan vets weren’t impressed

U.S. Sen. Dean Heller with a group of soldiers at Nellis Air Force Base in Clark County.

U.S. Sen. Dean Heller with a group of soldiers at Nellis Air Force Base in Clark County.

A 2010 veterans report does not favor Dean Heller.

There was a time when it was fairly easy to learn how veterans’ groups felt about members of Congress. They issued report cards on the members’ voting records. However, most and possibly all veterans’ organizations have dropped this practice.

The last report card issued by a veterans’ group was released in 2010 by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). And in that report, Dean Heller of Nevada—then a member of the U.S. House—tied for the worst grade in the Nevada congressional delegation. Heller received a D compared to an A for Dina Titus, a B for Harry Reid, a C for Shelley Berkley, and a D for John Ensign.

Heller has been emphasizing veterans’ issues in his campaign for reelection to the U.S. Senate. A television commercial he’s running touting his veterans record has gotten wide news coverage. But in 2010, when IAVA ranked him on the way he voted and the bills he co-sponsored, he made what they considered the right decision on just 11 out of 18 occasions.

The IAVA report does not distinguish between a vote against veterans or failing to vote, treating them both as harmful to veteran needs, but we have tried to learn from congressional records which of the two he did.

What IAVA considered Heller’s mistakes were these:

• In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon violated enlistment contracts and kept servicepeople in the war zones past the end of their enlistments, a practice known as stop-loss. Congress passed legislation providing extra compensation but did not order an end to stop-lossing. And even the additional pay was initially paid only to servicepeople who were stop-lossed after Congress approved the extra money. In House vote 348 on June 16, 2009, Heller voted against a measure that would have paid the extra money to those who were stop-lossed earlier.

• In 2009, HR 3082 contained money for homeless veterans, rural veterans and mental health treatment. Heller either voted against the measure or failed to vote on it during House vote 529. We were unable to learn which he did, but it cost him.

• IAVA supported House vote 336, which was a vote on the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011. For IAVA it was important because of the frequency of rape in the military—3,200 reports of sexual assault involving servicemembers in 2009, 279 of them in combat zones, though the Pentagon estimated only about a fifth of such incidents were reported. IAVA said the measure “significantly strengthens the [Pentagon’s] military sexual trauma (MST) prevention programs … including requiring the creation of a sexual assault hotline and authorizing access to legal counsel for sexual assault victims.” Heller voted against the measure.

• Heller also lost points with IAVA by failing to “take a leadership role” on some issues by not co-sponsoring specific measures. The four measures that were important to IAVA in 2010 were HR 1016, which provided for advance military appropriations to overcoming chronic congressional tardiness in approving the budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs “20 out of the past 23 years;” HR 4121, updating a disability claims process that was “outdated years before most [Iraq and Afghanistan] veterans were born;” HR 5933, providing for changes to the New GI Bill; and HR 5120 or HR 5400, which dealt with job opportunities for new veterans. Of these four priorities for Iraq and Afghan war veterans, Heller co-sponsored none.

The situation in the Nevada congressional delegation, in which Democrats have better records of support for veterans than Republicans, was common in most delegations and generally. During the 2008 presidential election between John McCain and Barack Obama, when Disabled American Veterans was still doing congressional report cards, we noted, “In 2006, Disabled American Veterans gave McCain a 20 percent rating. In 2006, Disabled American Veterans gave Obama an 80 percent rating. … In 2006 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America gave Senator McCain a grade of D. In 2006 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America gave Senator Obama a grade of B-plus.” ("McCain and veterans,” RN&R Newsview blog, Sept. 26, 2008).

In that article, we also gave the following 2006 IAVA rankings for Nevada’s congressional delegation: John Ensign (R) D-minus, Jim Gibbons (R) C-plus, Jon Porter (R) C-plus, Harry Reid (D) A-minus, Shelley Berkley (D) A-minus.

This partisan distinction in veterans issues also complicates Heller’s efforts to portray himself in his reelection campaign as better able to help veterans. While Heller is co-chair of a bipartisan Senate VA backlog working group, that panel was made bipartisan because the Veterans Affairs backlog scandal made the issues so politically sensitive. Heller may be able to function productively within its confines, but in the rest of Congress, committees are not bipartisan, and neither is the full house. His ability to move his fellow Republicans on veterans’ issues, given their unfavorable voting records, may be very limited.

In addition, there has recently been criticism of the portrayal by members of Congress of federal veterans’ medical facilities as poor—by Heller, among others—when in fact, it is normally ranked well in professional studies. An article in the current Washington Monthly reports that politicians and journalists have repeatedly said the Department of Veterans Affairs “was, as the New York Times put it, ‘one of the largest, most complex and troubled cabinet agencies in the federal government.’ Other outlets described it as ‘scandal ridden’ and subject to ‘scathing reports’ of dangerously long wait times and substandard care.”

But the Monthly reported that the nonprofit research group RAND Corporation “found that the quality of VA care was generally better than private health care. [This was] just the latest of scores of studies that have come to the same conclusion for nearly two decades now. … [S]tudies like the RAND report are virtually ignored by the press. This isn’t just a Fox News problem. Consumers of neutral and even left-leaning news sources are largely unaware of the many studies showing the general excellence of America’s largest integrated health care system, and the country’s only true example of socialized medicine. As the U.S. continues to debate what to do about its unsustainable health care system—and as conservatives continue to push for ‘free market’ solutions, including privatizing the VA itself—the fact that a government-owned and -operated system is outperforming the private sector should be a major story. If VA care is as good or better than the alternative, how would pushing vets into private-sector care make them better off? But that question rarely gets asked, because too many people are unaware that the premise guiding these policies—that the private sector inevitably outperforms government—is false."Ω