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 VoteVets.org, 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.

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