The Department of Veterans Affairs seemed to be standing in front of a fast-moving train 7 MAY when a top official said VA would need two years of preparation to come up with a payment system for a proposed overhaul of GI Bill education benefits. The warning flags were waved by Keith Pedigo, VA’s associate deputy undersecretary for policy and program management, who said meeting an 1 AUG 09, effective date for the benefits increases, under what lawmakers are calling the 21st Century GI Bill of Rights (S.22), would be extremely difficult. Because the proposal calls for the maximum benefit to be different in each state, payments would have to be manually, rather than automatically, processed, Pedigo said. “VA does not now have a payment system or the appropriate number of trained personnel to administer the program,” Pedigo said, predicting it would take two years to develop a payment system to provide the new benefits. Those benefits include paying the full cost of tuition and fees for the most expensive four-year public college or university in each state, plus a monthly living expense, an annual payment for books and other expenses, as well as up to $1,200 for tutorial assistance. Pedigo, testifying before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, also warned about the potential for large overpayments because the bill calls for lump-sum tuition payments directly to a school at the start of a quarter or semester, without specifying what would happen if a student drops out. Pedigo also warned of fundamental unfairness in a proposed housing allowance that would be based on where a school is located, rather than where a student lives, which could encourage veterans to enroll in online learning programs offered by schools in high-cost areas.
His warnings come as the House and Senate are poised to attach S.22 to a wartime supplemental funding bill in an effort to overcome questions about how to pay for the benefits and the administrative costs. Attaching S.22 to the wartime funding bill also would put pressure on the Bush administration to sign onto a generous overhaul of veterans benefits in order to secure funding to continue military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congressional leaders derive an additional benefit from attaching the GI Bill increases to the supplemental — it would attract more votes for the measure at a time when many lawmakers are reluctant to continue funding Iraq operations. The Pentagon, VA and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget oppose S.22, either as a separate bill or combined with the supplemental. But Bush administration opposition — and VA’s warning about implementation problems — do not seem to counter the growing push from veterans’ groups to pass what Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), S.22’s chief sponsor, calls a move to “give first-class futures to the people who serve.”
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the nonpartisan analytical arm of Congress, said in a report 8 MAY that enactment of S.22 could lead to a 16% drop in re-enlistments. The Defense Department could counter that drop only by increasing re-enlistment bonuses. Fully offsetting the draw of a better veterans’ education program would require a $25,000 re-enlistment bonus for every first-term service member, something that would cost the Pentagon about $6.7 billion over five years. However, that cost would be offset by lower recruiting costs, the report predicts. It estimates there would be a 16 percent boost in recruits, which would allow a cut in enlistment bonuses and in other recruiting expenses that would result in $5.6 billion in savings over five years. The combination of better recruiting but weaker re-enlistments would leave the military with a $1.1 billion cost over five years to maintain the current force, the report said. Overall, CBO’s cost estimate is slightly lower than the estimated price tag issued by the Bush administration. Congressional budget analysts predict S.22 would have an overall cost of $680 million in the first full year and $51.8 billion over 10 years. VA officials told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday that the proposal would cost $64.9 billion over 10 years. Currently, 75% of Army, 70% of Marine, 50% of Navy and 49% of Air Force enlistees who complete their first enlistment term get out of the military,
The House of Representatives could pass a war supplemental soon that includes Webb’s GI Bill proposal, and the Senate plans to take up the bill when they do. In the Senate, Republicans are expected to offer their alternative bill, the Enhancement of Recruitment, Retention and Readjustment through Education Act (S.2983), that pays a little less to veterans and includes a Pentagon-requested provision that would allow career service members to transfer all or part of their benefits to family members, but they do not appear to have the votes to block S.22, which has 57 Senate co-sponsors, including 10 Republicans. Veterans’ groups, who have been pushing for years for an overhaul of the current Montgomery GI Bill, have picked Webb’s bill as their favorite. Carl Blake, national legislative director for Paralyzed Veterans of America, told the Senate committee that S.22 is better because it “accomplishes our goal of returning the GI Bill to the level established following World War II.” Blake also objected to Pentagon criticism that better GI Bill benefits, designed to encourage people to go to college, are bad for the nation. [Source: AirForceTimes Rick Maze articles posted 8 & 9 May 08 ++]