Military Update: House members bitterly fight over veterans’ pensions
Democrat Bob Filner, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Republican Steve Buyer, ranking Republican and former chairman, have been feuding since the 110th Congress convened in January with Democrats taking control.
Their feud took on new intensity in July over an issue that pits pensions for Filipino veterans who fought with Americans in World War II against additional pension dollars for a group of elderly American wartime veterans made homebound by non-service-connected disabilities.
Buyer accuses Filner of strong-arming through committee a bill (HR 760) with language to give overly generous service pensions to Filipino veterans of World War II and paying for those pensions by, in effect, neutralizing an appeals court ruling that made a special monthly pension available to 20,000 more elderly and housebound U.S. veterans.
Also, Buyer charges that Filner abused his authority as chairman to block committee consideration of Republican late-hour amendments that would have safeguarded the special monthly pensions.
Filner doesn’t dispute that the Filipino pensions are slated to be funded with dollars earmarked to raise compensation for elderly U.S veterans with non-service-connected disabilities. But he argues that the extra pension dollars resulted from an appeals court finding a “loophole” in the law. Also, Filner said he regards as a higher priority pensions to Filipino veterans who fought with Gen. Douglas MacArthur more than 60 years ago and shouldn’t have to wait any longer to be compensated for that service.
As to the charge that he acted undemocratically by refusing to consider Republican amendments before the committee voted on HR 760, Filner said he was incited to use hardball tactics during the bill’s markup when Republicans themselves ignored committee tradition and withheld their amendments from Democratic scrutiny until a final vote was to start.
A tough floor fight over the bill is expected in September.
“The thing that upsets me the most in regards to Mr. Filner is that he has no respect for other people’s views or opinions,” Buyer said in a phone interview. “He is intolerant and he never follows the rules.”
Filner responded, saying “If he were fighting for veterans as much as he’s fighting me, we’d all be better off.”
“He won’t admit I’m the chairman …” Filner said. “ He’s determined to keep me, personally, from having legislative victories. And he’s just hurting veterans, as far as I can see.”
Evidence that personalities fuel much of current dispute over Filipino veterans might be found in how the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee tackled the issue. In June it approved an identical Filipino veterans’ provision using an identical funding source. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, the committee chairman, led the effort and former committee chairman Larry Craig, R-Idaho, chose not to criticize or even mention the Filipino provision in his own press release on the bill (S 1315).
Buyer and Filner, however, appear to seek out opportunities to poke the other in the political eye. Both came to Congress in the class of 1992. Otherwise, Buyer said, their backgrounds couldn’t be more different.
Buyer, from Indiana, is a Citadel graduate, a lawyer and an Army Reserve colonel — someone, he says of himself, who “has served his nation for 27 years of war and peace. You walk into my office and immediately say, ‘I can tell this is a military guy.’ ”
Filner, a native of New York City, claims in his official biography to have “spent several months in a southern jail as a ‘Freedom Rider’ in the Civil Rights movement.” He settled in San Diego and taught at a local university before entering politics.
“You go into his office and there’s a huge picture of him being arrested,” Buyer said. “He prides himself on having been a Vietnam War protester.”
That difference in background explains the “volatility” of their relationship, Buyer said. “Because you’ve got one who has been schooled in honor and in trust and all the virtues and values that go with military bearing. And you put that with someone who is a public activist, anti-institution and doesn’t give a damn about the rules and you’re going to have conflict.”
Last July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims overturned a Department of Veterans Affairs decision that had denied Special Monthly Pension (SMP) to Robert A. Hartness, an 86-year-old World War II veteran now legally blind from age-related macular degeneration. VA had argued that to qualify for SMP at the housebound rate, an elderly wartime veteran has to have at least one condition rated 100 percent disabling. Hartness, who conceded he still cuts his own lawn, was rated 70-percent disabled.
VA said the court’s ruling would make 20,000 more veterans eligible for higher SMP at a cost of $965 million over 10 years. Filner, following Akaka’s lead, amended HR 760 to support VA’s original position on SMP eligibility, which freed up money to help 18,000 aging Filipino veterans.
Those living in the United States would receive the same old-age pension available to U.S. veterans, which is linked to level of income. Those in the Philippines, however, would receive $8,400 a year if married, $6,000 if single and surviving spouses would get $3,600 — regardless of income.
Buyer said these payments are too high, the “equivalent of over $100,000” for a Filipino family living in the Philippines.
Filner shrugged off the criticism, noting Filipino veterans haven’t received any compensation for 60 years and most don’t have long to live.
It is “no accident” that he has pushed to help Filipino veterans for 15 years, Filner said. Fifteen percent of his constituents are Filipino Americans, the highest concentration of any district outside of Hawaii, Akaka’s state.
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