Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Exclusive: "M*A*S*H" Star’s Journey to Activism Will Make Literary Stop in Iowa City

Actor Mike Farrell, best known as B.J. Hunnicutt on the TV show “M*A*S*H,” has spent most of his life as a political activist. Farrell, however, doesn’t like being called an actor or an activist. “I don’t like being called an activist, because this is used to separate me from those people who are calling me that,” Farrell told the Iowa Independent during a telephone interview. “And this only serves to cut off the communication process.”

Instead, Farrell, 69, would prefer that people call him Mike, which inspired the title of his new memoir, “Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist,” which he will read from May 30 at the Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City.

As part of Farrell’s sojourn, he said he never really wanted to write a book, but a friend convinced him to write about his life’s story, where he came from, and his journey to become an actor and an activist. “I didn’t want to write a how-to book for activists, because I don’t think it can be done,” Farrell said. “Rather, I wrote a story about my life and shared my journey.”

Farrell was born in St. Paul, Minn., but he grew up in Hollywood, where his father worked as a studio carpenter. He began his movie career with small parts in films including "The Graduate" and "The Americanization of Emily." Eventually he landed a regular role in the soap opera "The Days of Our Lives" and then leading roles in two series, "The Interns" and "The Man and The City," followed by a four-year contract with Universal Pictures.

His eight years on "M*A*S*H" included the opportunity to both write and direct several episodes, earning him nominations for Director's Guild and Emmy awards. Farrell credits “M*A*S*H” for helping him shape his world view, saying the show provided him with an opportunity to travel and see a great number of cultures.

During the course of the long-running sitcom, Farrell also began to pursue an interest in politics and human rights that took him to Cambodia, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, and he is now considered one of Hollywood's prominent activists. He is currently co-chair of Human Rights Watch in California and president of the anti-capital punishment group Death Penalty Focus.

Mike Farrell's Questions and Answers with the Iowa Independent:

Iowa Independent: "M*A*S*H" not only provided audiences an opportunity for laughter, but the show shed light on the humanity and inhumanities of war. When considering it was the most popular television show during its time, why do you think people were so drawn to it?

Farrell: "M*A*S*H" depicted a fundamental humanity and told the truth. A lot of blood has been spilled in war, and "M*A*S*H" reminded people of this and that we have been misled by our leaders.

Iowa Independent: How much of B.J. Hunnicutt’s character was Mike Farrell, or vice versa?

Farrell: We’re the same height.

Iowa Independent: Your experiences in the Marines and as an activist have given you firsthand insights into how the U.S. policies have affected other countries. What have been some of the more eye-opening repercussions you have witnessed?

Farrell: I’ve seen victims of torture in the United States, South America, Africa and Asia. I think in too many instances, these incidents of torture, whether directly or indirectly, have been an effect of U.S. foreign policy. Our country is responsible for helping create the circumstances in which these occurrences of torture took place.

Iowa Independent: Where do the current administration’s policies and foreign policy decisions fit in this paradigm?

Farrell: The current administration has been criminal in the way it has twisted and abused our Constitution. The Bush administration has stripped our Bill of Rights, lied to us and unconscionably diminished the fundamental values we hold as Americans.

Iowa Independent: Do you sense that people in other countries have trouble trusting you and other Americans, or do they tend to separate the people from the policies?

Farrell: I’ve always found that if you come with the right attitude and you are genuine with your offer of support, people in need will trust you. Our latest actions abroad have hurt us in terms that people are a little less willing to trust us, and it does take longer sometimes to demonstrate that we can be trusted.

Iowa Independent: You are a strong opponent of the death penalty. What has drawn you to advocating against this particular issue?

Farrell: The death penalty is one of the hidden diseases in our country and is doing serious harm to us as a nation. We’ve been duped by our government and don’t realize it’s harming us in ways that people aren’t aware of. When a government sanctions killing, this harms other people because it’s seen as acceptable, and this opens the door to the dehumanization process.

Iowa Independent: In his 2008 gubernatorial bid, our current governor, Chet Culver, said he would support a limited death penalty for some of the more extreme cases, specifically those involving children victims. What are your thoughts or notions about the notion of a limited death penalty in these cases?

Farrell: I can see why some people still cling to a limited death penalty, because they have an emotional connection, and they cannot completely let go of the death penalty. It’s a process of letting go, so they hold on to it, claiming it’s only for the worse offenders. Unfortunately, we have always claimed it’s for the worst of the worst. However, it’s used to unfairly prey upon the poor and only serves to perpetuate racism.

Iowa Independent: You mentioned you don’t like being categorized. In the bigger picture, do you think recent categorizations have helped lead to our country’s current divisiveness and polarization, socially and/or politically?

Farrell: Yes, exactly. We need to begin having a meaningful dialogue, so we can address some of the major issues affecting our country and impacting the world.

Iowa Independent: Do you see any hope on the horizon for healing these divisive wounds?

Farrell: Sure, one of the major candidates for president is running a campaign that wants us to end these divisions, not wanting to be divided into red and blue states, with the hope of healing these divisions. The obstacles we face are obvious. Certain people have taken advantage of this divisiveness to help distance people from one another as a means of gaining power and using this power to inflame the prejudices on both sides.

Iowa Independent: Having said that, what are your thoughts on this year’s presidential election?

Farrell: The people of Iowa gave a boost to the Obama campaign, which can make an extremely big impact on the world by providing people around the world with a sense of hope, and I’m grateful for that.

Iowa Independent: Your book’s title suggests that your book and life are part of a journey. What advice would you impart to the younger generation whose journey has just begun?

Farrell: It’s urgently important that they examine who they are and take the time to take a serious look at their own circumstances and how they compare to not only people in our own country, but people’s circumstances in other countries as well.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Memorial Day Tribute to Iowa’s Fallen Soldiers

A tribute to the 11 soldiers with Iowa ties, who paid the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past year:

In Memory of…

Army Maj. Stuart Wolfer, 36, who served in Des Moines from May 1994 to November 1996 with the Army Reserve’s 19th Theatre Army Area Command of Fort Des Moines, and was killed April 6, 2008 in Baghdad, Iraq.

Marine Lance Cpl. Cody Wanken, 20, of Hampton who died April 2 at the Wounded Warriors hospital in San Diego from injuries sustained in Fallujah in Sept. 2007.

Army Spc. Chad Groepper, 21, of Kingsley, who was shot and killed Feb. 17, 2008, in the Diyala province northeast of Baghdad.

Army Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller, 24, a former University of Iowa student and Iowa City resident, who was killed Jan. 25, 2008 in Barikowt, Afghanistan.

Army Sgt. Adrian Hike, 26, of Ralston, who died Nov. 12, 2007, while on patrol in Afghanistan.

Army Sgt. Joseph B. Milledge, 23, who died Oct. 5, 2007, when a roadside bomb exploded in Baghdad, Iraq.

Army Sgt. Kevin Gilbertson, 25, of Cedar Rapids, who was shot and killed Aug. 31, 2007, in Ramadi, Iraq.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Scott Carney, 37, of Ankeny, who died Aug. 24 near Heart, Afghanistan, when the Humvee in which he was a passenger rolled during a convoy operation.

Marine Sgt. Jon Bonnell Jr., 22, of Fort Dodge, who died in an explosion Aug. 7, 2007, in Al Anbar, Iraq.

Army Pfc. Michael Patrick Pittman, 34, a Davenport native, who was killed in an explosion June 15, 2007, in Baghdad, Iraq.

Army Cpl. Llythaniele Fender, 21, a 2004 graduate of West Monona High School in Onawa, who was killed June 10, 2007, in an explosion in Karbala, Iraq.

In Memory of the other 56 soldiers with Iowa ties, who paid the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan since March 2003:

View Larger Map

In Memory of…

The 853 Iowans who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the war in Vietnam,

the 392 Iowans who were killed in the Korean War,

the 5,633 Iowans who died while serving in World War II.

and all of the other soldiers, Iowans and otherwise, who died in combat while serving the United States Armed Forces.

Friday, May 23, 2008

McCain Dodges Iraq War Funding Vote; Grassley and Harkin Split

Despite President Bush’s threat to veto a war funding bill with congressional add-ons, 25 Senate Republicans broke ranks and voted in favor of passing the bill, which added $97 billion worth of spending on top of the $165 billion earmarked for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through next spring.

Although the 75-22 vote surpassed Bush’s veto threshold, a war of words did break out on the Senate floor when Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, fired the first shot at his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Obama took issue with McCain on his reluctance to sign on to a new GI Bill amendment proposed by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., which accounts for over $50 billion of the proposed funding.

"I respect John McCain," Obama said, "but I can't understand why he's lining up with the president to oppose this bill," which provides funding and housing allowances for vets at private and public colleges. "There are many issues that lend themselves to partisan posturing, but giving our veterans the chance to go to college should not be one of them.”

Initially, Obama’s words were lost on McCain, who was not in the chamber and did not vote on the bill. Obama and his Democratic presidential rival, Hillary Clinton of New York, voted in favor of the bill. McCain, who had previously stated he did not support the new GI Bill and offered his own version, missed the vote due to campaign fundraising commitments in California.

Obama’s words eventually did traverse the country and McCain was quick to fire back a response:

"It is typical, but no less offensive that Senator Obama uses the Senate floor to take cheap shots at an opponent and easy advantage of an issue he has less than zero understanding of," McCain said in a statement. "If Sen. Obama would take the time and trouble to understand this issue he would learn to debate an honest disagreement respectfully. But, as he always does, he prefers impugning the motives of his opponent, and exploiting a thoughtful difference of opinion to advance his own ambitions. If that is how he would behave as president, the country would regret his election.”

McCain’s absence did not go unnoticed by the Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who said in a statement yesterday: "America's veterans and military families deserve better than a candidate who is willing to keep our troops in Iraq for 100 years, but refuses to take care of them when they come home.”

On the Iowa front, Sens. Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley voted along party lines. Harkin voted in favor of the bill while Grassley held the party line and joined 21 other Republicans in opposition to the funding bill.

"A supplemental appropriations bill is intended to pay for items of necessity like supporting our troops in the war on terrorism, which is something we can all agree on,” Grassley told the Iowa Independent in an email statement. “Instead, the majority decided to throw in everything but the kitchen sink and chose to ignore their own pay-as-you-go philosophy for most of the bill.

"I supported a GI Bill enhancement measure when it was offered as an amendment to another piece of legislation,” Grassley added. “But, because of procedural maneuvering, a GI Bill proposal was wrapped in with a package of unrelated spending and pet projects. It's a shame we weren't afforded the opportunity to give this important matter the separate consideration it deserves. In the end, this bill was riddled with a lot of troubling policy that I couldn't support."

Troubling or not, it remains to be seen what impact McCain’s non-vote will have on his presidential bid as he continues to court voters and fellow veterans. McCain will face his first test on the issue this Memorial Day weekend as Congress breaks for recess and the presidential candidates hit the campaign trail in full stride.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

UI Helps Vets Fill Gap Left Behind by GI Bill

While veterans wait for Congress to work out an updated version of the GI Bill that will survive President Bush’s veto pen, the University of Iowa has created a Veterans Grant Program to help fill the financial gap that many veterans face with existing GI Bill benefits.

John Mikelson, advisor for the UI Veterans Center, explained that while the current GI Bill covers some tuition and fees for veterans, it does not cover all costs, depending on individual situations.

"In a best-case scenario, approximately 60 percent of these educational costs are currently covered for veterans, and the UI grant will be a big help to current students," Mikelson said in a release.

UI is among the first universities in the country to offer this kind of grant to veterans, he added.

The UI will provide grants of up to $500 per semester to offset educational expenses for veterans who entered service from the state of Iowa and who served on active duty in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or other periods of hostility.

The UI has allocated $100,000 for the Veterans Grant Program, according to UI President Sally Mason.

"This grant program was created to support our veterans who have given so much to our country. It's the start of an effort to help these students who have returned to the University of Iowa to improve their lives through education," Mason said in a statement.

Larry Lockwood, assistant provost for enrollment services in the UI Office of the Registrar, said in a release: "Many of our students have had to delay their educational goals because they have been called to active duty to meet the needs of our country. The University of Iowa will give back to our veterans and eligible dependents in a small way and do what is right for this generation, as well as past generations who have served in times of conflict."

The new UI Veteran's Grant is based on need as determined by completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Students who are eligible for benefits as a dependent of a veteran who became 100 percent disabled or died as a result of military duty may also be awarded this grant. The Veterans Grant is renewable, but cannot exceed eight semesters. To reapply, the veteran must complete the FAFSA each year and must submit an application.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Loebsack Pushes Pain-Care Management Initiative for Servicemembers

Based on his observations on the ground in Iraq and on the home front at the Pain Care Center University of Iowa Hospital, Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, introduced legislation that would require the Department of Defense to create and implement a comprehensive pain care initiative for men and women serving in the nation’s armed services. Loebsack’s provision, The Military Pain Care Act (H.R. 5465), was added to the National Defense Authorization Act last week.

“We need to do a better job of protecting the health and wellbeing of our active-duty servicemembers on the battlefield, in military clinics, and in VA hospitals,” Loebsack told reporters on a conference call last week. “We have the best medical facilities in the world, but our servicememberes are not getting the comprehensive health care they deserve. Pain care management, both acute and chronic, is a critical component of this care and needs to be brought to attention.”

After touring the Pain Care Center and discussing pain care management with Dr. Richard Rosenquist, UI Director of Pain Medicine Service, Loebsack is convinced more needs to be done to provide servicemembers with treatment. “Forty percent of our armed forces are unable to return to their service obligations because of issues related to pain, yet the Defense Department has no pain care management system in place,” Loebsack said. “Failure to address this issue will not only affect active-duty members, but will also have an impact on the Iowa National Guard and the ease of their transition back into their civilian lives.”

Part of Loebsack’s bill would require the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study of existing military Department of Defense pain care programs and to develop a best practices approach.

“The implementation of a comprehensive pain care management system will have a significant impact on the personal lives of military members and the military service’s combat readiness,” Dr. Rosenquist said on the conference call. “Of the military members that have been treated by qualified pain management specialists, 94 percent of them have returned to active-duty service.”

Rosenquist said that most of the people he treats for pain suffer from lower-back pains, which he says is consistent among his civilian patients. “The day-to-day rigors of duties related to combat take their toll on soldiers' bodies,” Dr. Rosenquist said. “Not to mention, the need for pain care management increases with direct-combat injuries, such as injuries sustained from improvised explosive devices.”

Friday, May 16, 2008

New GI Bill Clears House; Battle Moves to Senate

House leaders found a way to appease members of the Blue Dog Democrats and overwhelmingly passed the new GI Bill yesterday by a vote of 256-166, as an attachment to the Iraq war emergency supplemental bill.

Last week House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was forced to pull the war funding bill from the schedule when some Blue Dog members, citing the “pay as you go” budget rules, threatened to revolt.

To offset the $51.8 billion that would be spent over the next decade for veterans’ education, Democrats proposed adding a one-half percent income tax surcharge on individual incomes above $1 million.

The Iowa delegation voted along party lines. Democratic Reps. Leonard Boswell, Bruce Braley, and Dave Loebsack voted in favor of the amendment.

“For too long our country has not lived up to our promise of serving our nation’s veterans with the same honor, commitment and dignity with which they have so bravely served our nation,” Congressman Loebsack said in a statement. “By restoring GI benefits, we will be offering 1.7 million brave men and women who have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan educational benefits on par with those provided to veterans of the World War II era. Not only will this strengthen our military, it will also make the heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan part of a new American economic recovery, just like after World War II.”

On the other side of the aisle, Reps. Steve King and Tom Latham, an original co-sponsor of the bipartisan bill, voted against the measure.

Latham supports the legislation’s passage as a standalone measure, his communications director Fritz Chaleff told the Iowa Independent in a statement. “He feels that it should, as any legislation considered by Congress, go through the democratic process of full committee hearings and debate before being considered by the full House,” Chaleff said. “Unfortunately, the eventual success of the measure is threatened because of the irregular and politically motivated process in which it was brought up.”

“Congressman Latham will continue to fight for this legislation through the regular established process that follows the very same solid democratic principles that America’s veterans fought and served to protect,” Chaleff said.

House Democrats overwhelmingly passed the bill despite President George W. Bush’s veto threat, and now the bill moves to the Senate, where it needs four more votes to meet the veto-proof threshold.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

McCain Faces Looming Showdown Over 21st Century GI Bill

(Update: Dems Shoot Down McCain’s Alternative GI Bill

Senate Democrats held off a Republican ambush to advance its own version of a new GI Bill Wednesday, shooting the amendment down by a 55-42 vote.)

During an election year, there is no such thing as a sure thing in congressional politics. The latest uncertainty surrounds Sen. Jim Webb’s 21st Century GI Bill, which met a temporary setback in the House last week when the legislation, attached to the Iraq War funding bill, was pulled from the floor after members of the Blue Dog Democrats threatened a revolt.

Meanwhile, the plot thickens in the Senate after a dose of presidential politics was thrown into the chamber pot, pitting decorated Vietnam War veterans against each other.

In a bipartisan effort, combat Vietnam veterans Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., have vowed to improve veterans’ education benefits by introducing a bill, the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 (S. 22), in the Senate that would substantially increase the educational benefits available to servicemembers who have served since Sept. 11, 2001.

At first, fellow combat veteran and prisoner of war Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, remained silent on whether he would support his colleague’s bill, contending he needed more time to study the bill.

The day after a nonpartisan veterans’ advocacy group, Vote Vets, delivered a petition signed by 30,000 veterans to McCain’ Senate office, McCain broke his silence and followed the Pentagon’s lead, which contends the new GI Bill is too generous and will encourage soldiers to leave military service and pursue a college education.

"We are working on proposals of our own — I'm a consistent supporter of educational benefits for the men and women of the military," McCain told ABC News. "I want to make sure that we have incentives for people to remain in the military as well as for people to join the military.”

The latter rationale prompted Wesley K. Clark, the former supreme commander of NATO, and Jon Stoltz, an Iraq war veteran and chairman of, to pen an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times.

The White House has voiced concern on the bill, arguing that if returning troops are offered a good education, they will choose college over extending their service. This is as offensive as it is absurd.

First, it is morally reprehensible to fix the system so that civilian life is unappealing to service members, in an attempt to force them to re-up. Education assistance is not a handout, it is a sacred promise that we have made for generations in return for service.

Second, falling military recruitment numbers are just as serious as retention problems. To send the message that this nation will not help you make the most of your life will dissuade a large number of our best and brightest from choosing military service over other career options.
Webb downplayed the political implications of the bill and made a plea for McCain to join the other 54 senators, including his Democratic colleagues Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York, who have already signed on to the new GI Bill.

"John McCain needs to be on this bill," Webb said in a statement to The Huffington Post. "I have said to him several times that this is not a political issue -- this is about providing a fair, deserved benefit to our troops. Based on his own military history and how strongly he speaks about the positive contributions of the people who have served, I hope that he will get on board and support this new GI bill."

As promised, McCain joined Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Burr, R-N.C., in unveiling an alternative to the Webb/Hagel bill, the Enhancement of Recruitment, Retention, and Readjustment through Education Act.

“We have an obligation to provide unwavering support to our nation’s veterans, and that is precisely what this legislation does,” McCain said in a statement. “Men and women who serve their country in uniform deserve the best education benefits we are able to give them. That is why I am pleased to join with Senators Graham and Burr to announce legislation that significantly enhances the Montgomery GI bill and promotes recruitment and retention which is critical to an All Volunteer Military.”

On the campaign trail Tuesday in Charleston, W.Va., Obama took issue with McCain’s unwillingness to support Webb’s bill.

"John McCain is one of the few senators of either party who oppose this bill because he thinks it's too generous," Obama said. "I could not disagree with him more. At a time when the skyrocketing cost of tuition is pricing thousands of Americans out of a college education, we should be doing everything we can to give the men and women who have risked their lives for this country the chance to pursue their American Dream."

McCain’s campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds quickly fired back in a statement, calling it "absurd" for Obama to question McCain’s commitment to America’s veterans "when Obama himself voted against funding our nation’s veterans, and troops in the field, during a time of war."

On the Iowa front, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin has signed on to Webb’s bill, namely because it includes more benefits, whereas McCain’s alternative bill imposes benefit limitations. “The GI bill being led in a major bipartisan fashion by Senators Webb and Warner truly supports our service members with the resources they need to improve and complete their education,” Harkin said in a statement to the Iowa Independent. “Other bills seem to set unnecessary benefit ceilings even though we have asked our troops to go above and beyond the call of duty. We should not limit the progress our returning soldiers can make.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has yet to decide upon either of the proposed bills. “Senator Grassley supports improving the GI bill, but has not committed to supporting any particular bill at this time,” Beth Pellett-Levine, Grassley’s press secretary, told the Iowa Independent. “He's looking forward to studying the bill recently put forward by Senators Graham, Burr and McCain as well as the Webb/Warner bill.”

Old vs. New GI Bill: What’s at stake for veterans?

The original GI Bill was signed into law in 1944 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to help ensure World War II veterans would be able to afford an education. Experts have argued that the GI Bill “reinvented America” after a half-decade of war. A 1988 Congressional study showed that every dollar spent on educational benefits under the original GI Bill added seven dollars to the national economy in terms of productivity, consumer spending, and tax revenue.

Fast forward 64 years to the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have produced over 1.5 million veterans. The current educational benefits offered to veterans, when adjusted for inflation and the rise in tuition and cost of living, are far lower than the original GI Bill. Today, after paying a nonrefundable $1,200 contribution from their first year’s military paychecks, troops receive an estimated $1,101 per academic month for up to 36 months, or four years of college.

Webb’s version of the new GI Bill will waive the $1,200 buy-in component, extend time to use benefits from 10 to 15 years, and will change the benefit proposal to pay for any public university and most private colleges -- capping benefits at the rate of the most expensive public university in the state. Moreover, the bill will add $1,000 a year for books and supplies and a stipend to cover cost-of-living expenses (based on DoD’s Basic Housing Allowance rate for E-5 w/dependent and zip code of the college/university).

Veterans attending a public university or select private college in Iowa will receive up to $5,935 based on the tuition cap at the most expensive public university, the University of Iowa. After adding in the living allowance and the $1,000 for books and supplies, veterans will receive an average yearly stipend of $7,674. Ironically, this is $2,226 less than veterans receive through the current GI Bill, but Iowa has the fourth lowest in-state tuition rate, and the intent of the new GI Bill is to provide certainty to veterans transitioning from the military to college, so they don’t have to worry about rising tuition costs outpacing their education benefits.

Another problem with the current GI Bill has to do with structural and bureaucratic delays, which have discouraged some veterans from using their benefits. National Guardsmen and Reservists, including those who have served multiple combat tours, typically receive only a fraction of their GI Bill benefits. Moreover, 30 percent of troops who pay the nonrefundable $1,200 contribution do not end up using the GI Bill at all. These veterans have paid the government $230 million, but received nothing in return.

On the other hand, Keith Pedigo, the Veterans Affairs associate deputy undersecretary for policy and program management, issued a warning last week that meeting an Aug. 1, 2009, effective date for the benefits increases in the new GI bill would be extremely difficult, because the proposal calls for the maximum benefit to be different in each state, payments would have to be processed manually, rather than automatically, Pedigo said.

“VA does not now have a payment system or the appropriate number of trained personnel to administer the program,” Pedigo said in a statement, predicting it would take two years to develop a payment system to provide the new benefits.

Pedigo also warned of fundamental unfairness in a proposed housing allowance that would be based on where a school is located, rather than where a student lives, which could encourage veterans to enroll in online learning programs offered by schools in high-cost areas.

Despite President George W. Bush’s threat to veto the new GI Bill in its current form, both the House and Senate expect to vote on the legislation before the summer recess.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Nussle: ‘Adding New GI Bill to Iraq Funding Bill Will Provoke Bush Veto’

Election-year politics has taken center stage on the Hill in D.C. as the House prepares to do battle with the White House over the Iraq funding bill. In the battle between the legislative and executive branches, the Democrats have switched tactics.

Last year Democratic leaders tried to add time lines for troop withdrawals to several versions of proposed funding bills. This year, however, Democrats have chosen to play the new GI bill card, gambling that President George W. Bush’s veto of a popular, bipartisan bill would be politically damaging.

Bush, however, has nothing to lose politically, so he renewed his veto threat against any bill that comes to his desk equipped with any add-on legislation that would require additional appropriations.

"To just pile them into the troop funding bill because the troop funding bill is necessary is a cynical process that the president has already been very clear about — the fact that he would veto," White House budget office manager Jim Nussle told the Associated Press.

Nussle, a former Iowa congressman and 2006 Republican gubernatorial candidate, told the AP that the House Democrats’ plan to add unrelated legislation extending unemployment benefits, at a cost of $16 billion over two years, and boosting education benefits under the GI Bill, at a cost that could reach $51 billion over the next decade, would provoke a veto even though they are popular politically.

In his call for fiscal restraint, Bush received help from across the aisle, when some members of the moderate Blue Dog Democrats threatened to revolt. The Blue Dogs are strong advocates of the “pay as you go” budget rules that require new benefit programs be financed with offsetting spending cuts or new taxes so as not to cause the budget deficit to spiral. They argue that the war funding bill is an emergency appropriation, but the veterans education funding is a new mandatory benefit program that's supposed to be subject to the budget rule.

"It's the principle involved of not putting a mandatory program of any kind on an emergency supplemental," Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn. told the AP.

However, not all the Blue Dogs shared this view or threatened to revolt, including Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, a 20-year Army veteran, who was one of the 277 House members co-sponsoring the new GI Bill legislation.

Boswell’s chief of staff, Susan McAvoy, told the Iowa Independent that the Blue Dog opposition was not an official position endorsed by the coalition. "He informed his colleagues where he stood prior to any debate on the bill,” McAvoy said. “Rep. Boswell is very supportive of veterans and would not do anything that would keep the new GI Bill from moving forward in the House.”

Nonetheless, the threatened revolt by Blue Dog members forced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to pull the war funding bill from the House schedule. She told reporters that she is confident the impasse with the rebel Democrats can be ironed out, but the delay threatens her goal of getting the war funding bill completed by Memorial Day.

Even if Pelosi does iron matters out with the Blue Dogs, there’s still the matter of Bush’s veto threat looming at the finish line. "Judging from what the president has said and where the Congress appears to be heading toward right now, the answer is still the same — that the president would veto," Nussle told the Associated Press.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Thanks to Bipartisan Support, House Expected to Pass New GI Bill

Despite the adage that everything changed after Sept. 11, 2001, there is one thing veterans have not seen changed: the GI Bill.

Sixty-four years have passed since the GI Bill, which ensured that 8 million combat veterans coming home from World War II would be able to afford a college education, was first signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

During this period, soldiers have witnessed firsthand how their enemies' strategies have evolved, from the guerrilla warfare tactics used in Vietnam to the current insurgency methods used in Iraq and Afghanistan

Soldiers and veterans have also witnessed the increasing costs of college tuition consistently outpacing the steady rise of inflation.

In a bipartisan effort, combat Vietnam veterans Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., have vowed to improve veterans’ education benefits by introducing a bill, the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 (S. 22), in the Senate that would substantially increase the educational benefits available to servicemembers who have served since Sept. 11, 2001.

The House is expected to vote on its version of the bill today. House Resolution 5740 has received bipartisan support and is co-sponsored by 277 House members, including Iowa Democratic Reps. Leonard Boswell, Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack, and Republican Rep. Tom Latham."No one has done more to secure our freedom than our veterans and military personnel,” Latham said in a press release. “The American people and the U.S. government have a solemn obligation to ensure they receive the benefits they deserve and that those benefits allow them to achieve their educational goals in life.”

Latham’s sentiments were echoed on the other side of the aisle by Loebsack. “For too long our country has not lived up to our promise of serving our nation’s veterans with the same honor, commitment and dignity with which they have so bravely served our nation,” Loebsack said in a statement to the Iowa Independent.

“This new GI Bill for the 21st century is a key step in honoring the service and sacrifice of our troops by restoring the promise of the GI Bill to pay for a full four-year college education,” Loebsack said. "Not only will this strengthen our military, it will also make the heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan part of a new American economic recovery, just like after World War II.”

Moreover, the bill would cover the cost of tuition up to the most expensive in-state public school and provide a living and book stipend, so that new veterans can focus on their educations and their readjustment to civilian life. It would also offer a more equitable benefit to National Guardsmen and Reservists than what is currently available.

Although the bill is expected to pass in the House, it has a roadblock, namely Arizona senator and presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s reluctance to endorse Webb/Hagel’s version of the bill.

McCain joined fellow Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Richard Burr of North Carolina in unveiling their own version of the GI Bill, the Enhancement of Recruitment, Retention, and Readjustment through Education Act. Initial reports indicate that McCain is reluctant to support Webb/Hagel’s bill, fearing the incentives will encourage servicemembers to leave the military prematurely and pursue a college education.