Military Update: GI Bill reformers hope for real gains in ’07
This might not be the year that Congress modernizes GI Bill education benefits for Reserve and Guard members, says Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., chairman of the House armed services subcommittee on military personnel.
But if Snyder and other key lawmakers have their way, 2007 will be the year Congress streamlines statutory responsibility for the GI Bill. That will “set the table” for GI Bill changes in 2008 and beyond, that truly will improve the lives of reserve component members, he said.
The lead vehicle for GI Bill reform this year is the Total Force Educational Assistance Enhancement and Integration Act of 2007, a 41-page bill (HR 1102 and S 644) backed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
Also behind the measure is the Partnership for Veterans’ Education, a consortium of military, veterans and higher-education groups that not only endorses the bill but helped to draft it after years of study.
“The big motivator for all of us is the disparity (in education benefits), reserve component people versus from active component, even though both may have served a full year overseas in a war zone,” Snyder said.
Drilling reservists have seen the gap in education benefit widen compared with active-duty members. More significantly, in Snyder’s view, drilling reservists and even mobilized reservists still lose all of their education benefits when they separate from service.
The Total Force GI Bill is intended to boost benefits and end the inequities. Though sharp GI Bill benefit increases are costly, supporters contend a modern Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) for reservists is overdue. They note how reserve and Guard personnel are being deployed and redeployed into war zones and disaster areas and to strengthen homeland security.
Congress a few years ago did pass the Reserve Education Assistance Program (REAP), which enhanced GI Bill benefits to reservists activated for 90 days or more after Sept. 11, 2001. Payments are set at 40 percent, 60 percent or 80 percent of active-duty MGIB, depending on length of activation. But as with Selected Reserve MGIB, REAP benefits can’t be used after discharge from service.
The Total Force MGIB would guarantee that reserve and National Guard education benefits would rise proportionally with active-duty MGIB benefits. It would allow REAP benefits to accrue month by month for mobilized members at the active-duty rate, currently $1,075 per month.
It would establish “portability” for REAP benefits so once mobilized reservists left service they could use benefits for up to 10 years.
But before Congress can even estimate the cost of these enhanced reserve GI Bill options, Snyder said, it must pass another provision of HR 1102. This one would consolidate active and reserve MGIB programs under the Department of Veterans Affairs. Reserve benefits now are awarded and funded by the Department of Defense.
This split in GI Bill responsibility between departments and, therefore, between congressional oversight committees, has created inconsistencies and inequities in benefits.
If in 2007 Congress only votes to combine management and budgeting responsibility for all GI Bill benefits under the VA, “I would consider it a successful first year,” Snyder said.
At a Capitol Hill news conference where the Total Force GI Bill was unveiled, Snyder said later, he was gratified to hear co-sponsors and military association leaders take a “realistic” approach to GI Bill reform this year by acknowledging the need first to consolidate GI Bill program under the VA before benefits can be improved.
“Everyone recognizes that to nurture the benefit over the long term, we need [it to be] for the total force,” Snyder said.
Defense officials oppose such consolidation for two reasons, Snyder said. One, they see reserve GI Bill as a retention tool they need to control, and making reserve benefits portable risks harming reserve force retention.
“We don’t agree,” Snyder said. “That misses the whole point about what we expect out of the reserve components.”
The second reason DOD opposes the shift is “legitimate,” Snyder said. Officials fear a “legislative sleight of hand” that would give the VA management of all GI Bill programs but would require DOD to continue to fund reserve benefits. Congress must ensure that doesn’t happen, Snyder said. If VA is responsible for setting benefits, it should have to pay for them.
Joining Snyder in sponsoring his House bill are Reps. Stephanie Herseth, D-S.D., who chairs the House veterans affairs subcommittee on economic opportunity; John Boozman, R-Ark., the VA subcommittee’s ranking Republican; and Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif.
The Senate bill is sponsored by Sens. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Other bills have been introduced to raise GI Bill benefits. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a freshman on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, made GI Bill reform his priority by introducing the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act (S 22) his first day in the Senate.
It would raise education benefits of personnel who deployed since 9/11 sufficiently so their benefits cover tuition, room and board and provide a monthly stipend of $1,000.
Current GI Bill benefits were designed for peacetime, Webb said. The demands on active and reserve forces from the war on terrorism justify more generous payments.
Under Webb’s bill, the enhanced benefits would go to members who served at least two years of active duty if some of that time was after 9/11. Veterans would have up to 15 years to use these benefits.
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