By Rachel Stolzfoos
The Senate used money from benefit cuts to military veterans in the 2016 budget to pay for the resettlement of an additional 3,000 Afghan interpreters in the United States. A dispute over a similar pay-for plan is behind the Judiciary Committee’s refusal to expand the program again in the 2017 budget.
The Special Immigrant Visa program allows Afghan interpreters who aide the U.S. government to get out of harm’s way by resettling in the United States, and last year the Senate authorized a major expansion of the program. The $336 million price tag of the expansion fell on U.S. military veterans in the form of increased pharmacy co-pays, The Daily Caller News Foundation has learned.
“That’s bullshit,” former Army combat veteran Alex Plitsas told TheDCNF. “Military families shouldn’t be paying for the SIV program through a pseudo tax. The program should be funded outright because of the service our interpreters rendered. This is infuriating.”
Last year’s defense bill increased co-pays for military families, saving the government about $1.5 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). A portion of the money saved was used to pay for the extra Afghan visas, a spokesman for the Armed Services Committee told TheDCNF, although the bulk of the money went elsewhere. Budget caps require lawmakers offset increases in spending with budget cuts.
Plitsas added: “They went this route to avoid having to cut any of the service budgets (army, navy, etc) that’s why I’m calling this a pseudo tax on military families. More importantly, this is a visa program overseen by State, why the hell isn’t this coming out of state’s budget?”
The committee spokesman told TheDCNF most of the $1.5 billion went back to the Treasury to pay down the debt, and some of the savings were used to offset the cost of expanding retirement benefits in other ways for “hundreds of thousands” of service members. Those changes will cost the government about $1 billion over the next ten years, according to the CBO.
Senators voted for the co-pay increases on the merits of the policy and were not treating it as a pay-for, the spokesman added. The increase was included for “no other reason” than to address rising pharmacy costs and to encourage veterans to use drugs available for free through military treatment centers rather than through pharmacies, the spokesman stressed.
Nevertheless, in making the decision to offset the visa expansion with funds from the co-pay increase, the Senate took hundreds of millions of dollars off the table that could have gone to support veterans or been used for some other purpose. There’s no reason the money has to come out of the defense budget, especially since there is overlap in jurisdiction with the State Department’s control of visa programs.
A disagreement between Senate Republicans over a similar pay-for plan this year has kept another expansion of the program out of the 2017 defense bill, a GOP Senate aide told TheDCNF. One proposal to offset the cost by taking money out of the State Department’s budget was floated and rejected.
“I’ve been told by multiple sources that they’re trying to use the co-pay hike to pay for the visa increase again this year,” the aide said. “With so much wasteful government spending that should be cut, it is befuddling how some in Congress are so eager to put military and veteran benefits on the chopping block.”
Sens. John McCain and Jeanne Shaheen are vocally pushing for more visas, on top of the 7,000 already allocated through Fiscal Year 2017. But neither has publicly addressed how the increase would be paid for. The CBO estimates the proposed increase would bring the cost of the program up to $446 million over the next ten years, from its current cost of $336 million.
Shaheen did not respond to multiple requests for comment. McCain’s office directed TheDCNF to the Armed Services Committee.
“Senate Republicans recognize the contribution of certain Afghan citizens who have been helpful to our war effort,” a spokesman for Republican Sen. Roger Wicker who sits on the Armed Services Committee, told TheDCNF. “However, any bill to expand the SIV program should contain acceptable offsets and go through regular order through the Judiciary Committee.”
According to Matt Zeller, a former U.S. Army infantry officer and CEO of No One Left Behind, there are approximately 10,400 former Afghan interpreters in the program’s application pipeline. Without an increase in visas, as many as 6,400 applicants will be left in Afghanistan, given the program currently only allows for 4,000 visas per year.
The program has a final chance at seeing an increase in funding once the National Defense Authorization Act hits the Senate floor this week, allowing supporters like McCain the opportunity to put forth an amendment.
Russ Read contributed to this report.
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