Military Update: In battle over GI Bills, Webb still holds high ground
By TOM PHILPOTT | SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 3, 2008
In perhaps any other year, the new Republican plan for enhancing the Montgomery GI Bill, which Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) introduced this week with Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.) and John McCain (Ariz.), would win high praise from advocates for service members and veterans.
But as momentum builds on Capitol Hill to pass S. 22, Sen. Jim Webb’s hefty new GI Bill to replace MGIB for any service member – active, Guard or Reserve – with qualifying active duty service since the attacks of 9-11, the Republican plan still might be a few critical features short of an acceptable replacement for S 22 among leaders of GI Bill reform.
Graham’s bill, the Enhancement of Recruitment, Retention and Readjustment through Education Act (S 2938), is cleverly crafted and will seem generous in comparison to a more basic MGIB reform bill, HR 5684, which the House Veterans Affairs Committee endorsed April 29th.
Graham’s bill would raise fulltime MGIB benefits to $1500 a month, up from $1101, for all users. That would include veterans and retirees who left service long before the attacks of 9-11.
It also would offer new enticements – including eligibility to transfer benefits to spouse or children -- for current members who meet new MGIB-enhancement thresholds at six and 12 years of service. After six years, members could transfer half of any unused MGIB benefits to family members. After 12 years’ service, the monthly benefit would pop up to $2000 a month, and members could transfer 100 percent of any unused portion to spouses or children.
Other attracted features of S 2938 include an extra $500 a year for books and a fresh chance to buy into the MGIB for roughly 5000 members still on active duty who first entered service when the only education benefit offered was the anemic Veterans Educational Assistance Program (VEAP).
Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticized Webb’s bill as a detriment to service retention efforts in an April 29 letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Gates also endorsed key features of the Graham bill without citing the bill by name or number. Clearly the Bush administration hopes that Graham and colleagues have put enough alluring features in S 2938 to draw bipartisan support away Webb’s bill. S 22 already has 58 co-sponsors in the Senate and 250 House members back a companion bill, HR 5740.
Service associations and veterans groups still are signaling a preference for Webb’s bill, citing its more generous benefits, enough to cover tuition and fees for the most expensive public college in any state, plus a monthly stipend based on local rental costs. Webb’s bill would allow Reserve and Guard members who mobilized multiple times to earn the same GI Bill benefits as active duty peers. Finally, the Webb plan is designed so that benefits automatically keep pace with the cost of public college education.
But Graham, in a phone interview, characterized Webb’s bill as “unworkable.” He said it would cost the VA about $250 million a year just to administer and that the plan lacks a transferability option to help families of careerists met their education goals.
“What I like about our approach is it takes an existing program that works well and adds benefits,’’ Graham said. Webb’s idea to ensure that benefits cover the cost of the most expensive public college or university in any state “creates disparity between the states in an unfair way,” Graham said. “In Michigan, I’ve been told, it’s like $13,000. In North Carolina, because they subsidize public education, it’s like $6000. That makes no sense to me.”
Graham’s bill would raise the fulltime MGIB benefit to $1500, which is about the national average cost of a public college. That amount would be adjusted annually using the government’s Consumer Price Index.
“The biggest difference, however, between our bill and the Webb bill is transferability,” Graham said, and this feature is designed to improve retention. He said Webb’s bill has no incentive to keep members in service.
“I think it is incumbent upon us to try not only to recruit but to retain this wonderful force we have,” Graham said.
Because careerists many can and do earn an in-service degree using tuition assistance programs, a transferability option is sure to become a popular feature for saving education costs for children or to help spouses launch their own careers, Graham said.
But his transferability option is more tentative than it appears, said one GI Bill reformer who has studied Graham’s bill. It would be left to the services, not the Department of Veterans Affairs, to fund that portion of the Graham plan. So a service branch might choose, from year to year, to fund other retention incentives, such as reenlistment bonuses, if they are viewed as more effective for keeping critical skills than family GI Bill benefits.
Retired Army Col. Bob Norton, an education benefits expert with the Military Officers Association of America, said Graham’s bill does have some terrific features. But Norton said only the Webb bill delivers on both goals set for GI Bill reform by The Military Coalition, a consortium of service associations and veterans groups. First, it would raise benefits enough to cover at least the average cost of a public college education and has an effective mechanism to keep them there.
Second, it would allow Reserve and Guard members to earn the same GI Bill entitlement as active duty troops, depending on length of active duty service. The Graham/Burr/McCain bill has no such provision, Norton said.
Joe Barnes with the Fleet Reserve Association said his organization supports any legislation that will enhance education benefits but appreciates that Graham’s bill would help at least some VEAP-era members.