Two weeks after the D-Day landings in Normandy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, more commonly known as the GI Bill. That landmark measure would provide both college tuition grants and a stipend for the returning servicemembers who had “been compelled to make greater economic sacrifice and every other kind of sacrifice than the rest of us,” according to Roosevelt. Even though the war would rage on for another year, leaders in Washington recognized that millions of young soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen would soon be returning to civilian life, and for their sake — and for the sake of a vibrant postwar economy — creating this educational pathway made tremendous sense.
It has been 74 years since the GI Bill was signed into law and it is now recognized as one of the most successful pieces of domestic legislation ever enacted. The postwar economic boom and the blossoming of the American middle class have both been attributed, in part, to the GI Bill. Many renowned Americans — including Bob Dole, Johnny Carson, Harry Belafonte, William Rehnquist and Clint Eastwood — were beneficiaries of the GI Bill. Economic studies have concluded that for every dollar the U.S. government spent on the GI Bill, our economy saw nearly seven dollars in return in the form of additional economic output and tax revenues from income growth.
Despite its stellar performance, the relative strength of the GI Bill deteriorated over time. By 2008, it was clear that tuition assistance and living stipends had not kept pace with the rising costs of a college education. As a freshman congressman on the House Armed Services Committee, I heard from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were forced to choose between dropping out of school or shouldering the burden of daunting student loans.
To fix this inequity, the Post-9/11 GI Bill was passed by the Democratic Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush on June 30, 2008. The updated law increased benefits to match the cost of four-year public university tuition in a servicemember’s home state and increased the living stipend to keep faith with the original law. It also allowed GI Bill benefits to be transferred to a spouse or a dependent child, a groundbreaking change that transformed the value of military service for families. After the bill-signing, I flew to Iraq and vividly recall being surrounded by soldiers bursting with questions about when and how this feature would be implemented. Since then, it has become clear that the transferability of the GI Bill has been an enormous morale booster, and a valuable incentive to enlist and remain in service.
Unfortunately, the Department of Defense announced a new policy on July 12 that would prevent servicemembers with more than 16 years of service from transferring their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to eligible family members. The Pentagon likely views this as a shrewd cost-saving measure, since such individuals will almost certainly continue to the 20-year mark to earn their military pension and retirement benefits, regardless of being denied GI Bill transferability.
However, revoking transferability breaks our commitment to our most dedicated and seasoned servicemembers. Such a policy change sends exactly the wrong message to those who have chosen the military as their long-term career and sets a damaging and dangerous precedent for the removal of other critical benefits as servicemembers approach military retirement. The Pentagon is prioritizing retention goals in its effort to cut costs and is watering down its rewards for the most steadfast and devoted in its ranks.
Two weeks after the Pentagon released this policy, 83 of my colleagues in the House of Representatives, both Democrats and Republicans, signed a letter I had written to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis objecting to the change and calling for its reversal. Once a servicemember meets the requirements for transferring GI Bill educational benefits to an eligible family member, we should uphold our end of the commitment. To use FDR’s words, protecting transferability “gives emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down.”
Joe Courtney, a Connecticut Democrat, is ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower subcommittee.