Veterans employment bill passes House, awaits president's signature

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 12, 2012 

— Final passage of a veterans bill authored by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., shows some of what it takes these days to get legislation through a seemingly dysfunctional Congress.

Turns out, it helps to be modest in scope, bipartisan in approach and carefully tailored toward a respected and politically astute constituency. Put another way, this is How a Bill Becomes Law, the 2012 edition.

On Wednesday night, the Senate gave the final sign-off to Denham’s legislation that makes it easier for veterans to use military training in finding civilian work. The bill now goes to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature.

“It’s the issue we have here, that’s common-sense and no-cost,” Denham said Thursday, speaking of his bill’s success, “and it’s the classic politics, of bipartisanship and working with both houses (of Congress.)”

The bill directs federal agencies to accept appropriate military training as meeting requirements for providing a federal license. Though states are responsible for most job licensing, federal occupational licenses can be useful in the maritime, aviation and communications industries, among others.

Dubbed the Veteran Skills to Jobs Act, the legislation approved only four months after its formal introduction last March is seemingly skating where other efforts sink like a rock. Just a few hours before the Senate gave final approval to the veterans bill, for instance, the House passed a posturing bill to repeal Obama’s health care law; it died immediately in the Senate.

But like water polo, legislating that looks straightforward on the surface must also ride atop ever-more furious action below. That’s one reason why only 29 House bills were enacted into law between January and early June, while more than 2,110 House bills were introduced.

“I’m pleased that Democrats and Republicans in Congress have come together to pass legislation that will make it easier for veterans to put their skills to work,” Obama said in a statement Thursday.

Behind the scenes, veterans groups like the American Legion and congressional offices from both parties are now lobbying the White House to secure a high-profile presidential signing ceremony. Though it seems destined to happen in this election year, issue advocates know never to take anything for granted.

The American Legion, for instance, has been discussing applying military training toward civilian licensing since 1996. At the time, the Pentagon “pushed back” for fear of losing its well-trained troops to the civilian sector, Steve Gonzalez, assistant director of the American Legion’s National Economic Division, said Thursday.

The veterans group kept laying groundwork, including testifying at a 1999 House hearing and, more recently, co-sponsoring with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce a two-day “summit” on the topic.

Separately, Denham and his staff began deliberating last fall over veterans legislation.

Civilian licensing, in particular, resonated with Denham. He said that when he left active duty with the Air Force, he was informed he’d need lots more civilian training to become licensed as an aircraft mechanic despite his military work on airplanes.

In early October, Denham traveled to Afghanistan with Rep. Tim Walz, a Minnesota Democrat and former member of the National Guard. The long trip, and conversations with soldiers, helped forge what Denham called “a real working relationship” that led to Walz becoming the first co-sponsor of the veterans bill introduced March 7.

“We can understand … the sacrifice that our service members made,” Walz said during House debate Monday, so “we owe it to them to conduct ourselves in a manner that’s reflective of their sacrifice and service.”

Walz helped bring House Democrats on board, while Denham talked to House GOP leaders to secure precious House floor time. Veterans organizations cranked out letters in support.

The 2.4 million-member American Legion, meanwhile, reached out to Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, in part because Florida has a per-capita veterans population higher than all but one other state. Nelson came on board with a Senate version.

At about 7 p.m. Wednesday, with the Senate floor largely empty, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., brought the House bill up. He uttered a few parliamentary formalities, and then asked that the bill be passed and sent to the White House.

“Without objection,” stated Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, the presiding officer, “it is so ordered.”

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