UPDATE: JULY 27, 10:08 A.M. EST
WASHINGTON — White House officials have told veterans groups that failure by Congress to approve a debt ceiling increase would be “totally devastating” for active-duty troops and veterans, but offered few specifics on which services and benefits are at risk.
Veterans groups said administration officials would not promise that military paychecks and veterans benefits would continue to be paid even if a deal isn’t reached, saying that a default would be an unprecedented event in American history.
The Tuesday meeting came less than 24 hours after President Barack Obama’s national address on the stalled debt-limit talks, and only a week before the Treasury Department deadline for when it will be unable to pay the country’s bills without additional borrowing.
“They told us they really don’t know what will happen, because this has never happened before,” said Peter Gaytan, executive director of the American Legion. “So they’re still working towards finding a compromise ... because they don’t want to get to the point where they have to tell the military and veterans that they’ve failed.”
Without new borrowing, Treasury officials will have a shortfall in government obligations of about $134 billion for August, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. Military paychecks and veterans benefits will cost nearly $3 billion each for the month, but might not get covered if other items get higher priority.
Several legislative efforts to protect military pay from the debt debate have stalled on Capitol Hill. Earlier this month, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who is sponsoring one of those bills, blasted Democrats and Republicans for using military pay as a political pawn in the negotiations.
The looming debt-ceiling crisis is the second time this year that military and veterans payouts have been threatened by political infighting. In April, troops and their families waited anxiously until the final hours of a deadline to extend the federal budget before a deal was reached.
But before that deal was reached, veterans were told that a partial government shutdown – which could happen if a debt-limit deal is not reached by Aug. 2 -- would not stop disability or education benefits from being sent out, or close any veterans hospitals. But new benefits claims would be stopped, veterans burials could be halted, and VA hotlines and regional offices would operate on an extremely limited basis.
Pentagon officials at the time said equipment and operations for troops serving in overseas war zones would not be affected by a partial shutdown. But non-essential defense civilian employees would have been temporarily furloughed, while essential ones would work without pay. Military commissaries would be closed, temporary-duty travel canceled and base services forced to shut down or operate with fewer hours and personnel.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney deflected questions from reporters Tuesday on whether military pay and veterans benefits would be stopped next week, but said, “You can’t escape the reality that if you don’t have the authority to borrow, you can’t pay all your bills in a timely manner.”
Gaytan said Treasury officials at Tuesday’s meeting did not outline a priority list or detail any such service cuts, with officials repeating that they hope to reach a compromise before any of those measures are necessary.
Fred Burns, director of administration and operations for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Washington, D.C. office, said his group’s main concerns had been the lack of information on the effects of a government default, and the lack of communication with veterans groups.
He didn’t receive much clarity on what might happen from the meeting, he acknowledged, but he said he was encouraged that the White House brought all of the parties in to keep them up to date.
“They said the president’s commitment to the military and veterans is still there,” he said. “But they did not shed any new light on what will happen.”
Jonathan Schleifer, policy director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the White House invitation showed that troops and veterans are at the forefront of officials’ thoughts with the budgetary crisis, and he hopes that regardless of the outcome they will protect both groups.
“But they didn’t say (veterans) were part of that protected class, so we can’t be sure,” he said. “We hope they see that [servicemembers and veterans] have already sacrificed, and should be the last to face those sacrifices again.”
All of the veterans groups at the meeting expressed their desire for Congress to find a long-term fix to the crisis, to prevent other shutdowns or default threats in the near future.
“Right now, our members just want to know what to expect,” Schleifer said. “Veterans are a resilient group, and now the growing anxiety is because they just aren’t sure what will happen.”