As the incoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Sen. Bernie Sanders said on Thursday that he hopes the next defense secretary improves ties between the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Sanders also said that curbing defense contractor fraud and ensuring fair treatment of women and gays in uniform are topics that he plans to discuss with Chuck Hagel before the Senate votes on whether to confirm President Obama’s nominee to run the Pentagon.
Sanders said integrated health records and disability evaluations as well as improved coordination for employment opportunities are critical in addressing challenges that veterans and their families face in what should be a seamless transition from military service to civilian life.
At a time when Congress is focused on ways to reduce deficits, Sanders also asked Hagel to outline how he would address widespread contractor fraud and cost overruns. He sought assurances that Hagel is committed to significantly improving management practices which have put the Pentagon on the Government Accountability Office “high-risk list” since 1995. The GAO has cited pervasive, long-standing financial management weaknesses that impair management's ability to assess the resources needed for operations, track and control costs, ensure basic accountability, anticipate future costs, measure performance, maintain funds control and reduce the risk of loss from fraud, waste, and abuse. “Every dollar we spend on unnecessary weapons, on contractors caught defrauding the government, on storing spare parts for equipment that is no longer even in use and on contractors performing the same job as DOD civilians or military personnel at twice the cost is a dollar that could be spent on other critical investments in our nation’s future or used for deficit reduction,” Sanders wrote in the letter to Hagel.
In a letter to the former Nebraska senator, Sanders also asked Hagel to address ways to improve opportunities in the military for women. Women remain underrepresented in both military and civilian leadership roles, making up fewer than 5 percent of general officers in the Army and Marine Corps and fewer than 10 percent of senior enlisted ranks.
The senator also wants assurances that Hagel is committed to non-discriminatory treatment of gays in uniform. While a ban was lifted in 2011 on gays serving openly in the armed services, Sanders said the Pentagon must do more to ensure fair treatment for gay and lesbian spouses and partners and to support the families of gay service members.