Lawmakers warned Veterans Affairs officials Wednesday not to assume they'll continue to see their budget grow unchecked, especially in light of recent criticisms of department spending.
The department has seen budget increases each of the last 16 years, even as funding of other government programs has held steady or been reduced. When lawmakers passed spending caps on federal programs in 2011, Veterans Affairs programs were exempt.
In fiscal 2001, the VA budget totaled $45 billion. The president's budget request for fiscal 2017 is four times that, topping $177 billion, with $75 billion for discretionary funding alone.
Administration officials have said the increases reflect the growing demands on the department in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are designed to correct longstanding shortfalls in the department.
But congressional leaders warned that those cost corrections may be coming to an end.
"This budget request is almost double the VA budget in 2009, and since then, the VA has been plagued by scandals and mismanagement and has consistently proven its inability to use its existing resources," Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said in a statement.
"The solution to fixing a broken agency is not simply giving it more money."
In a VA budget request hearing across Capitol Hill, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., promised to "fight to ensure VA has the resources it needs, but given recent problems, this budget request will receive every bit of the scrutiny it is due."
He referenced a billion-dollar cost overrun for plans to build a new VA hospital near Denver and related budget shortfalls last year that caused Congress to pass emergency legislation to keep the department's programs operating.
"But in classic VA fashion, I'm not aware of a single employee that has been held accountable for these unprecedented failures," he said.
Other committee members lamented lingering problems with veterans' access to health care appointments, disability benefits claims and middle management mistakes.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald said the budget proposal does include a host of efficiencies and reforms, including proposals to simplify the management structure within the department and close excess facility space.
"We're providing more care, more access to care," he said of the budget increases. "We're dealing with more disability claims. We're serving a customer that has more demands."
The annual budget process is expected to last well into the fall, although leaders from both chambers have expressed hope that appropriations work could be completed before the November presidential election.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.