Helping veterans and active duty military has been a focus of Representative Jimmy Panetta during his time in Congress. He is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He served in the Navy Reserve.
I recently met him at his office in Washington, D.C. and asked how his service has shaped his work as a lawmaker.
Congressman Jimmy Panetta (JP): It's given me definitely more of an empathy that you have for exactly what veterans on the ground actually need. I work very well with other veterans who are now serving because I believe that we have that sense of service, that sense of mission where we can put party aside and focus on the policy. And that's why as the Co-chair and Co-founder of the For Country Caucus, where it is a caucus of just those who served in the military, Republicans and Democrats, I think there's ten Democrats, nine Republicans, who are actually coming together and can talk about legislation. Can talk about issues without actually taking the party into account at least focusing on policy first and then obviously talking about party. But it's that type of discussion that I believe needs to happen more often here in Washington, D.C. And that's why as a veteran the people I work with most often are other veterans who understand what it takes to get things done.
His office is filled with awards and family photos. On the wall opposite his desk, there’s a clock surrounded by seven lights. They light up orange and buzz to alert lawmakers when something is going on on the House Floor, like a vote. You’ll hear them when I ask Congressman Panetta about concerns local service members have about military housing, like mold and lead paint.
Krista Almanzan (KA): Since housing is privatized, what role can the government have now when that that responsibility has kind of already being given away?
JP: As I look at things, as you know. I'm all about the evidence. Give me the evidence first and then we'll base our argument, we’ll base it on policy, on that evidence. And I can tell you that there's plenty of evidence to do something about military housing beyond just kind of putting forward legislation and then just throwing up your hands and saying that's all we've done. A lot of the complaints we heard from, not just the military members, but more importantly their families who were living in these housing, is that when the conditions were subpar or needed to be complained about, they complained about it and the COs that was in their chain of command automatically showed up. They were they were sometimes at night. But the follow up with the private companies as you alluded to is a little slow and that's where we need to ensure that the Tenants Bill of Rights are actually enforced because they have that bill of rights. But like with most things, we've got to work on a way to enforce them.
KA: And then the Tenant Bill of Rights. So it's not a new thing. This currently exists you're just trying to like enhance it?
JP: Like I said it’s not just enhancing it, it’s making it an enforceability. What type of punishment can we get if you know in regards to the private contractors if they're not doing their job. How can we make them do their job better. How can we basically enforce it if they don't.
Congressman Panetta just introduced a bill to strengthen oversight over privatized military housing. And the House recently passed his Honoring Veterans Family Act.
KA: The Honoring Veterans Family Act, which relates to the grave markers, you know, like a tombstone, and being able to allow a veteran's spouse or their children to be recognized on that marker. Maybe explain like why that doesn't happen for veterans who are having their marker paid for by the V.A.
JP: Well look, I think there, that's with any bureaucracy, especially you know one like our military and one like our Veterans Affairs Department, there are a lot of rules and regulations and sometimes the common sense isn't there when they're written and therefore it takes constituents speaking up as they spoke up with us. That's what this job's about, it's about listening to the concerns of your constituents and if we can do our job here in Washington, D.C. by not only introducing legislation but actually getting it passed out of the House, working with the senators to make sure it gets passed to the Senate and then in front of the President. And so that's why it's good that you have more members who have served, who are veterans, who understand that it's things like being memorialized on a tombstone that is important because as I experienced in my time deployed in Afghanistan, you know I sacrificed, but more importantly it was my family that was sacrificing as well.