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GI Bill blues

Expanded benefits for deserving veterans are caught in a political cross-fire in Congress.

May 16, 2008

More than five years after the first U.S. soldiers were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq, Congress is finally trying to give them their due by helping veterans pay for a college education. A well-crafted bill by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) would increase the amount of assistance available to U.S. veterans deployed since 2001 to reflect tuition increases. The cost is estimated at up to $5.2 billion a year for 10 years -- not cheap, but less than we spend in two weeks in Iraq.

College is the essential ticket to upward mobility, and who more deserves a chance at that than the young men and women who volunteered for military service in wartime? The post-World War II experience shows that educating them is good public policy as well. First, it would boost military morale and the quality of recruits -- even though the military worries that it could hurt retention. Second, the investment in education is likely to pay for itself many times over as veterans join the workforce at higher pay rates.

But the new GI Bill has been deployed in a nasty political war. The Democratic congressional leadership attached it to President Bush's $108-billion emergency supplemental spending measure for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, along with a 2009 deadline for troop withdrawal from Iraq, a requirement that Iraq match U.S. reconstruction spending, a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits, and money for the Census Bureau, a military hospital in Guam and levees for New Orleans. With the price tag at $184 billion and counting, Blue Dog Democrats added to the House's smorgasbord version a "millionaire's tax" of 0.5% for people earning more than $500,000. House Republicans balked and defeated the measure Thursday. But the GI Bill and unemployment components were passed and sent to the Senate as amendments, leaving hope that they will eventually win final approval. However, Bush has threatened to veto any supplemental bill containing non-war spending.

Now, the Pentagon shouldn't be funding the sixth year of the Iraq war with an emergency appropriation. Congress shouldn't be trying to veto-proof benefits for veterans and the unemployed (both of which this page supports) in an emergency supplemental either. Congress and the president must both put the needs of veterans and the unemployed ahead of partisan considerations, and they could easily pay for these programs by, say, deferring purchase of high-tech weapons systems that won't help U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan. But if Bush vetoes the omnibus legislation, then Congress should bring the GI Bill back to the floor -- unencumbered -- for an election-year showdown.

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