By Congresswoman Julia Brownley
Originally published in the Ventura County Star
After being sworn in as Ventura County’s congresswoman a little over a year ago, one of my first tasks was to choose the committees I wanted to serve on. As the daughter, sister and niece of veterans, the proud representative of Naval Base Ventura County, and of the more than 40,000 veterans who call our community home, there was no question that I wanted to sit on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Even before serving on the committee, I knew the VA had struggled for years to live up to its mission. But the testimony we heard in hearing after hearing, including the one I hosted in Ventura County, often made these struggles seem insurmountable. From an enormous backlog of benefit claims, unacceptably long wait times for accessing health care, antiquated technology, frustrating interagency turf wars, and even outright instances of fraud, it was difficult at times to know where to begin.
But I also noticed over the course of the past 19 months, that while Congress as a whole seemed incapable of solving many of the nation’s most pressing issues, the VA Committee stood out as an oasis of bipartisan productivity.
We held together not only due to the extraordinary leadership of the chairman and ranking member of the committee, but because all of my colleagues on the committee remained singularly focused on serving the veterans we represented.
We worked to reduce the benefits backlog, we worked to improve mental health care and when the scandal erupted at the VA facility in Phoenix, we resisted scoring partisan political points. Instead we focused our attention on bringing in new leadership to the organization, scheduling dozens of hearings that lasted well into the night and listening to veterans service organizations, private industry experts and whistle-blowers alike, with the sole purpose of addressing the root causes that led to the problem.
Solutions were proposed in both the House and the Senate, and legislation passed both bodies with broad bipartisan support. A conference committee, for which I was privileged to be appointed to, began discussions to reconcile the Senate legislation with the House legislation. This is how Congress is supposed to work!
But as often happens during tense negotiations, it was clear that party lines were forming and emotions were running high. Talks fell apart and both sides began negotiating in the press rather than with each other. Pundits began to predict that Congress would fail to reach an agreement before the August recess.
I was devastated. I was devastated mainly for our veterans who needed our urgent help. But I was also devastated that the collegiality of the committee I had worked so closely with over the months was on the verge of splintering apart.
That is why I offered a motion to instruct, a procedure that allows members to guide the work of a conference committee when progress has stalled. My motion was designed to bring not only my colleagues on the conference committee back together, but to refocus the House back to the task at hand, which was to serve our veterans.
My motion was simple. It asked the House to support the Senate bill, and to support the provisions in it that would improve care and treatment for survivors of military sexual trauma, a very important issue that I knew both sides cared deeply about.
Much to my delight, and frankly surprise, my motion passed the House. It was undeniable that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle were sending a clear message to Speaker John Boehner, and to the chairs of the House and Senate committees, that a compromise must be found.
The conference committee immediately restarted negotiations; a deal was struck, and I’m pleased to say that it passed both the House and the Senate with an overwhelming bipartisan majority. The bill is now headed to the president’s desk.
The bill is not perfect, and will not address all of the problems at the VA. It is, however, a very substantial step forward.
There is no doubt that passage of a bipartisan conference agreement was only possible because my colleagues kept their focus, and when it strayed, returned their focus back to the veterans they were trying to help.
It’s a lesson that gives me great hope that Congress, despite its dysfunction, can work for the American people, if we simply keep our focus and when it strays, return it back to those we came here to serve.