H.R. 5166, WINGMAN Act, as amended

H.R. 5166

WINGMAN Act, as amended

Sponsor
Rep. Ted Yoho

Date
November 29, 2016 (114th Congress, 2nd Session)

Staff Contact
John Huston

Floor Situation

On­­­­ Tuesday, November 29, 2016, the House will consider H.R. 5166, the WINGMAN Act, as amended, under suspension of the rules. H.R. 5166 was introduced by Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) on May 3, 2016, and was referred to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, which ordered the bill reported by voice vote on September 21, 2016.

Bill Summary

H.R. 5166 would enable congressional staff, which would include staff sometimes referred to as “caseworkers”, to have “read only” access to veterans’ records in the databases of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), if the veteran provides permission to the Congressional office to allow their records to be accessed. This would enable staff, who are already certified to access these records, to bypass the step of having to use the VA as a intermediator to receive them. The bill would also prohibit the VA from using any funds to provide new training to Congressional employees, limits the number of employees in each Congressional office who may have access to such databases, and clarifies that no additional funds are authorized to be appropriated by this legislation.

Background

In a congressional office, the term casework refers to the response or services that Members of Congress provide to constituents who request assistance. Each year, thousands of constituents turn to Members of Congress with a wide range of requests, from the simple to the complex. Members and their staffs help constituents deal with administrative agencies by acting as facilitators, ombudsmen, and, in some cases, advocates. In addition to serving individual constituents, some congressional offices also consider as casework liaison activities between the federal government and local governments, businesses, communities, and nonprofit organizations.[1]

Members of Congress determine the scope of their constituent service activities. Casework is conducted for various reasons, including a broadly held understanding among Members and staff that casework is integral to the representational duties of a Member of Congress. Casework activities may also be viewed as part of an outreach strategy to build political support, or as an evaluative stage of the legislative process. Constituent inquiries about specific policies, programs, or benefits may suggest areas where government programs or policies require oversight or legislative consideration.[2]

Under the Privacy Act, each executive branch agency that maintains records containing an individual’s personally identifiable information must have a release from that individual to share information with any other entity. In general, agencies cannot reply to a congressional inquiry without a Privacy Act release signed by the constituent requesting assistance. Most agencies will accept any signed document from a constituent stating that the constituent grants a Member of Congress access to any record held by an agency that will help resolve the constituent’s inquiry.[3] H.R. 5166 ensures that Congressional offices must continue to obtain Privacy Act release forms before being allowed to access Veterans’ records through the VBA database.[4]

Some Members of Congress have been concerned about the speed of information sharing between the VA and congressional offices. H.R. 5166 grants certain staffers access to certain VBA records in an attempt to speed up this information sharing process.

According to the bill sponsor, “The interaction between the VA and congressional constituent advocates should be seamless.  It is unacceptable that weeks or months pass by before advocates are able to receive the files they’ve requested from the VA to help veterans.  Our veterans and their families who have served in the defense of our country deserve a timely turnaround when filing their benefits claims. This is a commonsense bill that will inevitably increase the speed at which benefit claims are processed. We owe it to our nation’s veterans to give them the best quality care we can and not make them wait months for the benefits they most desperately need.”[5]

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[1] See CRS Report, “Casework in a Congressional Office: Background, Rules, Laws, and Resources,” March 11, 2015.
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] See Rep. Ted Yoho Press Release, “Yoho Bill Improves Benefit Claims Process for Veterans,” May 4, 2016.

Cost

A Congressional Budget Office cost estimate is currently not available.

Additional Information

For questions or further information please contact John Huston with the House Republican Policy Committee by email or at 6-5539.