Federal Eye: Obama Marks VA’s 20th Anniverary

President Obama marked the 20th anniversary of the Department of Veterans Affairs today, saying the coming year “will be the true test” of the department’s mission to provide assistance to the nation’s veterans, as many start returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Until we reach a day that not a single veteran sleeps on our nation’s streets, our work remains unfinished,” the president said during an address at VA headquarters, just blocks from the White House.

With Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki by his side, Obama touted his administration’s plans to serve an additional 500,000 veterans by 2013 by expanding access to VA health care facilities and providing additional care for mental health and injuries, “to ease the transition from active duty.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs was elevated to Cabinet level on March 15, 1989, replacing the Veterans Administration, which was established in 1930.

At a ceremony marking its ascension, then President George H. W. Bush said “There is only one place for the veterans of America, in the Cabinet Room, at the table with the President of the United States of America.”

“I couldn’t agree more” with that statement, Obama said today.

When they debated the possible ascension in the late 1980s, many lawmakers considered the proposal a big pork barrel project.

“There were all sorts of efforts to keep the agency from bloating up, and it generally didn’t bloat at the beginning,” said Paul C. Light, a New York University professor and expert on the federal bureaucracy who served as a staffer on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee at the time. “It’s going to grow substantially in the coming years in terms of total employees, but for the most part it didn’t grow much after cabinet elevation, which is exactly contrary to the veterans’ groups. They wanted a bigger department with bigger influence.”

The VA became the 14th Cabinet department with 245,000 employees and a budget of $30 billion per year. Today, it has more than 286,000 employees and a proposed 2010 budget of $55.9 billion.

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