New bill takes aim at veterans records backlog

NARA's National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo.

NARA's National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo. National Archives photo

Some of the new bill's provisions had previously been included in the House version of the Build Back Better reconciliation bill.

A measure considered as part of the Biden administration's Build Back Better domestic policy bill, which passed the House last November before running into opposition in the Senate, is back in the form of a legislation introduced Thursday by chair of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.). 

The bill would give $60 million to the National Archives and Records Administration to address swelling backlogs of requests from veterans for the military records needed to access critical government benefits. 

According to Maloney, the backlog of records at NARA's National Personnel Records Center currently sits at 600,000 requests. The military and medical records are necessary for benefits like medical treatment and emergency housing. Most are paper-based, making their retrieval difficult during the pandemic.

"It's clear that our veterans' records system is in desperate need of reform," said Maloney in a statement.  "This commonsense bill will help provide the funding the National Personnel Records Center urgently needs to modernize its information technology and shore up its workforce to ensure records processing is just a click away."

The provision of the millions in funding is an echo of a provision in the Build Back Better bill that passed the House, although the new bill also includes other requirements for NARA to give the House Oversight and Reform Committee a plan for the backlog, including timeframes for its reduction, within 60 days of the law being enacted.

The $60 million could be spent on improving cybersecurity and the digital preservation of records.

Reps. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) co-sponsored the bill. 

This isn't Maloney and other lawmakers' first attempt at bringing down that backlog. 

Last fall, a bipartisan group asked the inspector general at NARA to weigh in on how the records center can eliminate the backlog. 

House Oversight and Reform members have also urged the Department of Defense to aid the NPRC, and encouraged NARA to tap into the Technology Modernization Fund to modernize systems and clear the pileup of requests.

The agency told lawmakers last summer that the agency wants to eliminate the backlog by the end of 2022; NARA head David Ferriero has also cited an October 2022 date for the backlog to be eliminated.