Indy Explains: Diving into the details behind Heller's D grade from a veterans group
U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, the son of a veteran who has been vocal on issues affecting the veteran community throughout his political career and who sits on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, was recently slammed by his opponent for receiving a poor grade from a national group that advocates for veterans who have served in wars since 9/11.
Rep. Jacky Rosen, a Democrat whose father was also a veteran, released a television spot last week criticizing Heller for being “tied for the worst grade in Nevada on veterans” in an attempt to push back on criticism from the Republican senator and his supporters on the topic. The ad cited a Reno News & Review article detailing the “D” grade Heller received on the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s 2010 report card.
Heller’s campaign immediately pushed back on the ad, dismissing the organization as a “left-leaning partisan group that has a shady history of misusing donations meant to support veteran programs.” The organization, in a statement to The Nevada Independent last week, said that its report cards “are comprehensive and non partisan and reflect the voting records of the elected leaders at that time.” (IAVA has also previously publicly denied all claims that it misused any grant funds.)
Numerous advocacy organizations — from Heritage Action for America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to Planned Parenthood and the League of Conservation Voters — routinely hand out report cards judging whether members of Congress supported their policy goals. Often, those report cards are highlighted by candidates and their campaigns who use them to frame their opponents in a negative light or to portray themselves in a positive one.
But such report cards often reflect positions taken in a small number of votes on complicated bills and generally aren’t all-encompassing representations of a lawmaker’s voting history on any particular topic.
In fact, IAVA’s own report card notes that its grades are “not a comment on a legislator’s party, platform, history or character” nor an “endorsement or rejection” of a lawmaker. It states that the grades are “based solely on their action or inaction” on voting for the organization’s priorities in the 111th Congress, which ran from 2009 to 2010.
In total, then-Congressman Heller was dinged by IAVA for voting against two bills, for missing a vote on a bill and for not co-sponsoring four IAVA-backed bills, though he supported the group’s other 11 legislative priorities. That 61 percent, or 11 out of 18, score earned him a spot on the organization’s “D-list” that year, along with roughly 120 of his colleagues in the House.
But a deeper dive into the two votes for which Heller was dinged on the report card reveals that the Republican lawmaker actually supported the policies IAVA singled out in its report card — and that the pieces of legislation that Heller and his colleagues voted on were much more complex than those single policies. He also was penalized for missing a vote on a bill — which his campaign says he would’ve voted in favor of — to attend his daughter’s wedding, as well as for failing to co-sponsor four bills.
In a statement to The Nevada Independent, IAVA defended the report card metrics, saying that “fighting for a clean bill is [lawmakers’] responsibility” and that “co-sponsoring a bill is the least you can do to show support for veterans and their families.”
The Heller campaign did not respond to questions seeking further information about why he voted against the two bills and how he decided which bills to co-sponsor as a congressman.
A spokesman for Rosen’s campaign, in a statement to The Independent, doubled down on the campain’s attacks on Heller’s record on veterans.
“Whether he likes it or not, a nonpartisan organization for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans scored Dean Heller’s voting record and his failure to co-sponsor key legislation in Congress, and he earned a D grade at the time,” Rosen spokesman Stewart Boss said in a statement. “Senator Heller’s record on military and veterans’ issues has flaws, this report card is an example of those shortcomings, and we’re going to keep holding Senator Heller accountable between now and November.”
Below, The Nevada Independent takes a look at the three votes Heller was dinged on, the bills he was docked points for not co-sponsoring, and the overall methodology of the report card to allow readers to judge the Republican senator’s record for themselves.
The 2010 IAVA report card based its grades on 18 total legislative priorities, from preventing veteran homelessness to improving care within the Veterans Administration for female veterans. Members of Congress were given points for voting to support 14 pieces of legislation and for co-sponsoring four pieces of IAVA-supported legislation.
To get a perfect A+ score, lawmakers needed to receive all 18 points. Missing one or two resulted in an A grade; missing three or four was a B grade; missing four or five was a C grade; missing six or seven was a D grade; and anything less was an F. All 20 lawmakers that received an A+ on the report card were Democrats.
Heller received a D on the report card, with a total of 11 points. He had received a B on the organization’s first report card issued in 2008, which is no longer available to view online.
Again, Heller lost two points for voting no on bills, and an additional point for missing a vote to attend his daughter’s wedding.
IAVA, in its statement to The Independent, said its report card is “a measure of who was willing to be present and step up for veterans,” noting that “only yes votes pass laws.” The organization said that it made exceptions for those who were ill and unable to vote but said that they “expect members of Congress to show where they stand by making votes on legislation that affects the veterans community.”
Heller also lost four points on the report card for failing to co-sponsor IAVA priority legislation. IAVA said in the statement that it “gave every member numerous opportunities to know which bills we endorsed, were seeking co-sponsorships for and were rating.”
Retroactive stop loss payments
The first piece of legislation Heller was penalized for voting against contained a provision for additional pay for service members who were forced to stay beyond the length of their enlistments, or stop-lossed, in order to fill the ranks in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Congress passed legislation in 2008 to pay stop-lossed service members an additional $500 per month for their additional service, but it only provided the payments to service members who were stop-lossed after the bill became law. The legislation in 2009 applied those payments retroactively to anyone who had been stop-lossed since 9/11.
Heller actually voted in favor of an earlier version of the bill that, among other things, contained $734.4 million for the stop-loss payments. But the final version of the legislation that passed — and that Heller voted against — was a $105.9 billion wartime spending bill that included $534.4 million for the stop-loss payments but also contained $5 billion in new credits for the International Monetary Fund requested by President Barack Obama and opposed by GOP leadership.
The bill also contained $7.65 billion in emergency funding to address the flu, which the Obama Administration attempted to play up in the days before the vote on the bill in an attempt to convince Republicans to support the legislation. In the end, GOP leadership was able to keep most congressional Republicans from voting for the legislation — and the IMF funding they opposed — losing only five Republicans in the final 226-202 vote.
The IAVA report card noted that the final bill “contained controversial provisions including war funding, expansion of cash for clunkers and limitations on the transfer of Guantanamo detainees” but said that they expected members to vote in favor of the bill “which was so critical to the military and veterans community.”
However, the group said that the policy was important enough to them that they expected members to vote in favor of it despite anything else they might have opposed in the final iteration of the bill. In the statement, IAVA said that it did not excuse members of Congress for voting no on bills because they didn’t like some of the items attached to them.
“They had to decide where they stood on veterans issues and whether veterans were more or less a priority than the partisan or ideological issue attached to them,” the organization said. “We couldn’t control what the total bill looked like but we could be clear about what was good for vets and how we expected members to vote. Fighting for a clean bill is something that is their responsibility.”
Ending military sexual trauma
The second vote that Heller was penalized for was his “no” on the National Defense Authorization Act of 2011, which contained provisions strengthening the Department of Defense’s military sexual trauma prevention programs. IAVA said the legislation included 29 specific improvements, including the creation of a sexual assault hotline and authorizing access to attorneys for sexual assault victims.
But the legislation also contained a controversial repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, which effectively prevented gay and bisexual people from serving openly in the military. It passed on a largely party-line, 229-186 vote. The Don’t Ask Don’t Tell portion of the bill was eventually excised from the defense authorization bill and passed as a separate measure 250-175 in the House with most Republicans, Heller included, in opposition.
Heller told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2009 that he supported Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. His campaign did not respond to a question about his current position on the policy.
A skinnier version of the defense authorization legislation, minus Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, eventually passed the House 341-48, with Heller in support. That bill also included provisions addressing sexual assault in the military — including improved procedures for providing medical care to victims of sexual assault, increasing access to victim advocate services and requiring annual reports on sexual assaults in the military — though fewer than the initial legislation.
In the report card, IAVA noted that the original bill included a provision to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — saying that it doesn’t take a position on the issue — but that the legislation “contained a significant number of our priorities to warrant its inclusion in the report card.”
IAVA, in its statement, reiterated its position that “fighting for a clean bill is [lawmakers’] responsibility.”
Heller has been outspoken on sexual assaults in the military on other occasions, though. In 2013, he announced his support for prosecuting people accused of sexual assault outside the military chain of command, signing onto a bill by Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. The bill enjoyed support from both sides of the aisle including his Democratic counterpart Sen. Harry Reid, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and Republican Sen. Rand Paul.
“Our military is the greatest fighting force the world has ever known,” Heller said at the time, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “The Gillibrand amendment makes it even better.”
He spoke out again in favor of the approach in 2014, publicly supporting Gillibrand’s proposal on the Senate floor.
Funding veterans priorities
This bill gave $108 billion to the Department of Veterans Affairs, a 15 percent increase over the prior year, including $4.6 billion for mental health services, $3.2 billion for homeless veterans and $440 million for rural veterans. It enjoyed wide bipartisan support, passing 415-3.
Heller was one of 14 congress members who missed the vote because he had to fly back to Nevada to attend the wedding of his daughter, Hilary. Heller would have voted for this piece of legislation had he been in Washington, D.C., according to his campaign.
IAVA, in its statement, said that it only excused members for non-votes if they were “legitimately sick” and that they “expect members of Congress to show where they stand by making votes on legislation that affects the veteran community.”
Heller was also docked for failing to co-sponsor bills on four different subjects: advanced appropriations, authorizing the approval of the VA budget two years in advance; disability reform, making changes to the appeals process for submitting evidence to the Board of Veterans Appeals; the New GI Bill 2.0, upgrading the post-9/11 GI Bill; and veterans employment.
IAVA said in the report card that it wanted to recognize “members of Congress who took a leadership role in the legislative process” and “those who have stood with IAVA Action from the start by cosponsoring” its legislative priorities. But the report card didn’t just reward members who took the step of going above and beyond to co-sponsor a bill — it docked members who didn’t sign onto legislation.
In the case of the advanced appropriations bill, Heller actually voted in favor of the legislation (as did all but one of his colleagues.) But only the 125 co-sponsors of the legislation, which included 104 Democrats and 21 Republicans, received a point. (Heller has also voted multiple times in favor of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act, which includes advance funding for veteran health care.)
Heller also voted in favor of the final bill to upgrade the post-9/11 G.I. Bill, though he wasn’t one of the 125 co-sponsors on the version of the bill in the House. That bill had 111 Democratic and 14 Republican co-sponsors, and was backed by the IAVA, Disabled American Veterans, Military Officers Association of America, National Guard Association, National Association of Uniformed Services and Student Veterans of America
The other pieces of legislation on disability reform and veterans employment that Heller was docked for not co-sponsoring were never voted on — and Heller’s campaign did not respond to questions about how he chose to co-sponsor bills as a congressman — so it’s difficult to know whether he supported the specific proposals. However, all of the remaining bills had a lopsided number of Democrats to Republicans that signed onto them: 95-18, 97-8, 100-17, 39-2 and 95-19.
Several of those bills were backed by other veterans organizations in addition to IAVA including Disabled American Veterans, Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, the Retired Enlisted Association, the National Organization of Veterans' Advocates, Catholic War Veterans of the U.S.A., the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and Vietnam Veterans of America.
IAVA, in its statement to The Independent, said that it gave every member of Congress “numerous opportunities to know which bills we endorsed, were seeking co-sponsorships for and were rating.” Asked about the disproportionate number of Democrats to Republicans that signed onto the bills, IAVA said that it reached out to members of Congress equally using a tool that alerted all members of the House and the Senate.
“The scorecard is a measure of who was willing to be present and step up for veterans — it’s easy to say you support vets but actually supporting veterans means showing up and voting,” the organization said. “Only yes votes pass laws.”
Still, in general, Heller has advocated for legislation helping to reduce veterans employment, including improving the Department of Defense’s training program to help veterans obtain employment after their service, establishing pilot programs for veterans to enroll in technology courses and increased compensation for those who serve as guards and reservists under the G.I. bill.
He also sponsored a bill requiring a review of the Veterans Benefits Administration offices to help them more consistently process disability compensation claims and end the claims backlog and joined onto legislation revising the VA’s appeal process for disability claims.
In total, Heller lost seven points on the IAVA’s report card: for voting against two bills that included provisions the organization advocated for but that divided Republicans and Democrats on party lines for other reasons; for missing a vote to attend his daughter’s wedding; and for not co-sponsoring four bills, some of which Heller supported and others which he had supported similar legislation on.
But only a fraction of lawmakers signed onto the IAVA’s priority bills, and the vast majority of them Democrats. That means a significant number of lawmakers started off four points behind, or a B grade. Missing one more point took them down to a C, and two more, a D.
Heller did receive a D grade from a veterans association. But there is also evidence Heller supported some of the policies that he was docked for voting against because the policies were a small part of a much bigger and more complicated bill.