For now, House committee halts discussion on requiring servicemembers to pay into GI Bill
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 26, 2017
WASHINGTON — A House committee backed off of a proposal to require servicemembers to pay into the GI Bill after a written draft of the idea provoked a rift between various veterans organizations.
A subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs was slated to hold a hearing Wednesday about a list of possible improvements to the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Packaged into the discussion was an idea to offset the cost of those improvements by deducting $100 from new enlistees’ basic pay each month for two years – for a total $2,400 -- in order for them to receive education benefits.
Veterans organizations lined up on either side of the issue last Wednesday, with Veterans of Foreign Wars kicking off opposition to the buy-in by dubbing it a “tax on troops” and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America starting an online petition against the proposal.
The House VA committee announced Friday that the hearing was postponed. Staff have given no further details on why it was delayed or when it would be rescheduled.
“I think getting some early opposition and hearing from the VFW and their constituents caused them to decide it’s probably better to have more conversation about this before taking this to the official record in a hearing,” said Kayda Keleher, a VFW legislative associate.
Student Veterans of America, a group that claims to represent approximately 500,000 student veterans nationwide, is in a major proponent of the buy-in proposal.
“The hearing was intended to be that first discussion of these topics,” said Will Hubbard, SVA’s vice president of government affairs. “It’s disappointing some organizations were short-sighted and didn’t even want to have that discussion.”
Hubbard argued that asking servicemembers to pay into the program was protection against any further reductions in GI Bill funding by Congress.
Student Veterans of America has worked on a package of proposed changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill that other groups have also supported, including increased benefits for survivors and dependents and doing away with a requirement that veterans use their benefits within 15 years after their military service.
SVA asserted the list of about two dozen changes could be paid for with the $2,400 buy-in from each enlistee, which would generate an estimated $3 billion during the next 10 years, Hubbard said. The discussion draft states the buy-in provision would go into effect one year after the bill is enacted and would apply to servicemembers who enlist on or after that date.
Keleher agreed there was “room for improvement” with the Post-9/11 GI Bill but the VFW does not agree with the proposed methods for funding changes.
In a statement last week, the VFW contended the House committee was attempting to quietly pass the buy-in mandate without allowing adequate opportunity for comment. But in an email to reporters, Tiffany Haverly, communications director for the committee, said the hearing was intended to be a platform for discussion about the idea before any legislation was officially proposed.
The VFW and SVA said conversations about expanding the GI Bill – and finding an offset for the costs – would continue. Keleher said she wanted to find a solution that “doesn’t hurt the livelihood of the troops.”
“Some said they didn’t feel included,” Hubbard said of some veterans groups. “Hopefully now that we have their attention, they’ll respond to our emails and participate in the discussion. This is definitely not a conversation that’s over. We’ll continue to have the courage to stand up for what we believe is the harder right, versus the easier wrong.”
The groups started competing hashtag campaigns last week: VFW using #NoTaxonTroops and SVA #ForeverGIBill.
Other veterans groups and lawmakers also expressed their positions.
John Rowan, president of Vietnam Veterans of America, said in a statement that he would want the extra money to be used to expand education benefits to veterans who received other-than-honorable discharges. Under current law, those veterans aren’t eligible.
VVA urged Congress to move forward, despite Wednesday’s hearing being postponed.
“We understand the concerns of those who don’t like the contribution idea, but frankly, we can’t shut down the debate before it begins and expect to help those that the GI Bill leaves behind,” Rowan said.
Dan Caldwell, policy director for conservative-leaning Concerned Veterans of America, said opponents to the buy-in provision were “intentionally slowing down the process and standing in the way of veterans’ education.”
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., alerted House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., of the issue in a letter Friday – the day the hearing was postponed.
“As the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs considers this legislation, I hope the enrollment fee is rescinded,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “If any bill includes such a tax on our veterans, it would not have my support.”
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, issued a statement on behalf of other Democrats on the committee thanking the chairman, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., for postponing the hearing.
“With U.S. military operations expanding around the world, asking our troops to pay for their own benefits while we are still engaged in conflict sends the wrong signal and is the wrong thing to do,” Walz said. “When a servicemember raises their right hand, they promise to serve and protect the United States no matter what, and in return we promise to give them a free higher education in exchange for their service.”
Hubbard guessed there would be a cooling-off period before conversations about the GI Bill would continue.
“We never intended for this to be something that happens overnight,” he said. “It requires a very thoughtful and research-driven debate, and we hope to have that.”