Veterans

House Staffer Suppresses Information from Congress

in The Political Slant by

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DISSENT MUTED AS VETERANS BILL ADVANCES TO HOUSE FLOOR

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Students around the country who study political science in high school or college are taught the fundamentals of how Congress works. This includes how Congress considers policy, passes laws, works in committees, and the rules for how issues are debated, and much much more. Each congressional session in our nation’s Capitol, students who study political science (and the nation at large), have the opportunity to watch their representatives in action at the U.S. Capitol building, legislative office hearing rooms, or of course— Live on CSPAN from the comforts of their own home. However, one of the most influential players in law making process is often hard for the citizen to see.

These unknown and underestimated influencers are not the lawmaker, not a reporter, not a lobbyist, not a celebrity, not the business executive, and sadly not the citizen. One of the most powerful and unknown voices in our modern lawmaking process is the “professional committee staffer” in Congress.

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In more than 10 years working in politics, I have never felt the need to unmask a staff member publicly, before now.

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Professional Committee staff are employees of Congress. They report to professional staff members who tend to have strong competencies in research, politics, and federal policy.

They ultimately serve at the pleasure of a politician, and that politician is the “chairman” of the committee in which they work. These staffers have broad authority to draft and recommend policy to the staffs of the lawmakers that serve on the committee in which they work. They have vertical lines of authority and have very little oversight of their activities and this can dilute dissenting views on policy, should that staffer possess bias on an issue.

This Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on a piece of legislation, HR 5649: “Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William Mulder Transition Improvement Act of 2018” introduced by freshman Congressman Jodey Arrington (R-TX), representing Texas’s 19th Congressional District.

Congressman Jodey Arrington (R-TX) - Veterans Bill at Risk
Congressman Jodey Arrington (R-TX)

The problem is this bill will not improve conditions for veterans.

It will instead eliminate thousands of career opportunities for vets because of one provision that few members of the Committee were even aware was added to the bill.”

This provision was placed as an amendment. While the broad opposition to this provision was hidden by the staff member, the bill is otherwise positive for veterans. This is a wise tactic for anyone wanting to cut veterans benefits; electing to do it quietly and deceptively by suppressing dissenting public opposition from the Committee, and not informing the opposed group the bill is being voted on with a “bundle” of other bills.

Had the concerns of the several veterans groups (representing hundreds of thousands of veterans) been heard, I believe the committee would not have advanced this provision under these circumstances, or considered this bill separately to mitigate any disagreement. Further, why wasn’t a bill to cut the GI Bill included in the “Forever GI Bill”; a very public update to the benefit program a few months ago?

This is because the House VA Committee staff knows cutting the GI Bill is tantamount to sounding a tornado alarm in the veterans community. Instead of voting on a controversial cut to a popular program while you are purporting to improve it publicly, you simply move the controversial provisions in at a time when few opposing organizations are looking.

Jon Clark is the staff member currently serving as the Staff Director for the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity.

House Committee on Veterans' Affairs

Mr. Clark does not possess practical experience using VA benefits (he is not a veteran) or have background in aviation training, yet he is in an influential position to push policy that would impact constituents.

In Washington circles, these positions are know to be influential and high salaried jobs.  As I mentioned earlier, these staffers have the power to control the flow of information, produce reports that lawmakers read in order to identify how they should vote on behalf of their constituents (and in this case veterans and constituents). Abusing this power could create problems and this is a case study on exactly that.

Last year, several national veterans organizations, (collectively representing hundreds of thousands of veterans) wrote letters to committee leaders on the VA committees in Congress, urging that GI Bill funding not be cut for veterans attending public university flight programs.

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Particularly as our nation faces a pilot shortage.

Mr. Clark deceptively hid trade groups and veterans group letters from lawmakers ahead of key votes

Mr. Clark deceptively hid trade groups and veterans group letters from lawmakers ahead of key votes on HR 4149 (now Section 201) of HR 5949, a provision which aims to take away thousands of dollars from future cohorts of veterans (if made law) that are training to fill pilot jobs in the United States.

This was confirmed by interviews with the offices of Members of Congress who serve on the VA committee, who after the vote, grumbled they were unaware of opposition to the detrimental provision.

It is not possible for committee staff to produce accurate reports on policy issues if you are missing the voices of organization that collectively represent hundreds of thousands of veterans.

I also possess personal knowledge and documentation that Mr. Clark targeted veterans who voiced opposition to this bill in Congress by calling their employers by phone to raise ethics concerns and attempt to harm them financially.

Mr. Clark targeted veterans who voiced opposition to this bill in Congress by calling their employers by phone to raise ethics concerns and attempt to harm them financially.

In one case, he claimed that a veteran (disabled in the Iraq War) working for a public university should not voice his thoughts on a specific issue because he was being paid to advocate for educational opportunities for veterans. In my view, any congressional staffer that uses congressional resources, not limited to phone lines, to harass veterans at their places of employment should be immediately terminated.

These tactics of intimidation should not be tolerated.

If receiving letters of opposition from membership-based national veterans organizations and hiding them from the VA Committee wasn’t bad enough, this staffer took it a step further by actually targeting individual veterans in an effort to suppress opposition and advance his agenda of cutting veterans aviation benefits.

House Veterans Affairs tweet by Michael Little

Ironically, in years past, Mr. Clark opposed additional regulation measures that would impact for-profit colleges and refused to draft legislative recommendations for lawmakers to regulate those schools for fear that the optics would be politically poor.

Those profit colleges were so bad, Congress ended up bailing out the veterans who attended some of those schools which later, ultimately closed down to the tune of millions of dollars lost by thousands of students.

Those schools failed to produce graduates, yet aviation programs at public schools produce not only graduates, but career pilots!

Mr. Clark seeks to cut this valuable funding stream for veterans that earned it, despite not having a sound, principled, position on which rubric he uses to eliminate various programs. He would not regulate bad for-profit colleges, yet wants to diminish public college programs that produce careers for veterans.

According to public records, Mr. Clark earns a public salary that well exceeds $100,000 per year to work on behalf of our veterans to improve their benefits and conduct oversight over the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  

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Mr. Clark personally stated to me months ago (before I learned he was suppressing public feedback) that:

Veterans are meant for classrooms and can get a degree but pilot training is way too expensive, this program is ridiculous and Congress should not be paying for it”.

 

He told Lt. Col. Ross Meglathery, a colleague of mine and another veteran organization representative,

I don’t understand why veterans groups that represent spinal cord injured veterans would even be weighing in on this issue. Their members are not eligible for the program.”

 

That was not only a tasteless statement but completely out of line, tone deaf and is grounds for revisiting whether Mr. Clark has the breadth of understanding and compassion to be working on veterans policies.

The day this legislation was passed out of the House VA Committee (where it now awaits a House floor vote Tuesday), I contacted Congressman Jodey Arrington’s office, as well as another Democrat, Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Congressman O'Rourke - Veterans Bill at Risk
Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-TX)

These two Congressmen appeared to be supporting the bundled bill and I knew O’Rourke to be a solid and good member of Congress on veterans issues, while Arrington was more of a newcomer who I knew little about.  

I was shocked when both staff members I spoke to in each respective Congressmen’s office told me: “We have not seen the letters you speak of, might you send them over?”.

Each Congressmen’s office stated:

We have not seen the letters you speak of, might you send them over?”

The verdict was in, Mr. Jon Clark succeeded in hiding letters of opposition the lawmakers rightfully deserved to see before adding Arrington’s amendment to HR 5649, that contained millions of dollars in cuts to the GI Bill not advertised.

This is stunning that a civilian committee staffer, who earns a robust taxpayer salary, and who has a bias and personal opposition to veterans acquiring public flight training, would have such latitude to pursue his own personal agenda.

In a recent piece in the Daily Caller, Mr. Clark tried to remain anonymous after he clumsily revealed he had not realized VA oversight regulations in recent months had reduced this program’s cost over the years. He then failed to articulate which pilot certifications veterans would be eligible for under the new proposal and in the end, asked to remain anonymous.

In the meantime, freshman Congressman, Jodey Arrington released a press statement saying the GI Bill is not a blank check for veterans to pursue pilot training.

Sadly, it appears that Rep. Arrington isn’t aware that the cost to train a veteran to become a pilot, earn a Bachelors degree and enter a high-paying career all costs less than his $174,000 congressional salary.

Rep. Arrington, according to public records, lost his primary election and narrowly won a runoff to win his seat in Texas. His a state that loves its veterans. They either have a clumsy representative who ignores the will of his constituents, or simply a freshman Congressman that relies purely on office staff to research the bills he votes on.

Legislation that impacts veterans benefits deserves robust public notice. Veterans and the organizations which represent them should have letters written to Congress forwarded to the attention of policy makers before lawmakers cast a vote. Committee staff members entrusted with this task should conduct their jobs with integrity.

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After hiding letters of dissent and being called out by media, staffers like Mr. Clark should not be allowed to remain “anonymous”.

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On Tuesday HR 5649, a bill containing a provision widely opposed by national veterans groups will be voted on, while the majority of the U.S. House of Representatives still have no idea that a provision rests inside this bill that would worsen our national pilot shortage, while concurrently reducing employment opportunity for our veterans.

This was possible, in part, because a committee staffer hid letters written by prominent veterans organizations ahead of committee voting.

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Christopher Neiweem is an Iraq War Veteran and Founder of Neiweem Group. He regularly provides commentary on Fox News Channel, CNN, and a host of national and international media platforms, and writes for several national publications as an opinion contributor. He has testified in front of both the House and Senate before numerous committees. Mr Neiweem has more than 15 years experience working in state and national politics.

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