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Congress Owes Veterans a 21st Century GI Bill

Our careers have taken us to different political parties, but our shared experience as Vietnam combat veterans, former governors, and former Members of Congress has drawn us to the same conclusion: Our Congress needs to pass a 21st-century GI bill for the men and women who have served our military since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The current Montgomery GI Bill program offered to our veterans was designed more than 20 years ago as a recruiting incentive for the peacetime military. In every important aspect, it falls short of properly rewarding the much harsher demands of wartime service that have been placed on our military members in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a fellow Vietnam veteran, introduced a bill (S. 22) that would fix this inequity, offering today’s veterans the same educational benefits that were given to the “Greatest Generation” at the end of World War II.

With the support of principal co-sponsors Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), and World War II veterans Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and John Warner (R-Va.), Webb’s legislation embodies aspects of bipartisanship and basic fairness that are all too rare in today’s political climate. Most importantly, it will help today’s veterans as they make the transition to civilian life and give our embattled economy a proven tonic when it needs it most.

The bill also has won support from all of the nation’s chief veterans organizations, the higher education community, and prominent business leaders from one end of America to another. Fifty-seven Senators and 292 Members of the House — from both political parties — have embraced the bill as co-sponsors.

So what stands between this important legislation and President Bush’s desk? First, some Members of Congress have objected to expanding educational benefits as part of the supplemental war funding bill now pending in Congress. The post-9/11 GI bill, they argue, should be paid for with offsetting cuts in other government programs. While we yield to no one in our commitment to restored fiscal discipline in Washington and applaud the sincerity of those who have insisted on the pay-as-you-go rules in the House, we respectfully disagree. This says to our service members that we will send them to fight and die in a war whose funding has not been offset, even as we insist that their educational benefits must adhere to the strictest PAYGO rules of the Congressional budget process.

Nor did Washington insist that we use accounting offsets when paying for the stimulus checks now landing in the mailboxes of millions of Americans. Why do our veterans deserve less?

Insisting on such rules for new educational benefits for veterans is even more troubling given that Congress and President Bush only last December agreed to $75 billion in non-offset spending for one year of relief from the alternative minimum tax. The cost of the post-9/11 GI bill in the first year, by contrast, will equal far less than one week of the cost of the Iraq War.

Taking care of our troops through a new and expanded GI bill is a cost of the war little different from maintaining our troops there in the first place. This bill differs from existing federal entitlements in other respects as well. Providing a college education will add value to our economy and expand our middle class at a time when both objectives should be high priorities of the federal government. In fact, for every tax dollar spent on the World War II GI bill, our country received $7 in tax remittances from veterans whose careers benefited from enhanced education. And unlike other entitlement programs, the GI bill is not a transfer payment from working families to retirees. Nor it is a welfare program. It is an earned benefit that transfers benefits to our most deserving citizens.

The second general objection to the post-9/11 GI bill is that its proposed benefit levels might harm the all-volunteer force through increased losses in retention. To the contrary, recent analysis indicates the opposite. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates a 16 percent increase in high-quality recruits from this legislation, with only a 6 percent dip in retention rates. Since the Gulf War, the propensity of young Americans to serve in the military has dropped by half — a strong indication that new approaches to military recruitment are essential.

In sum, this legislation is at once the needed remedy to broaden the military’s pool of potential recruits, and the proper reward for the majority of them who choose to re-enter civilian life after honorable service.

Sens. Webb, Hagel, Warner and Lautenberg, along with a strong majority of their Senate and House colleagues, are advancing a proposal that can unite Americans as few things have since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. With this one proposal, Congress and the president have the opportunity to ensure basic fairness for our returning troops, provide our military leadership with an important new recruiting tool, and strengthen our economy. It is an opportunity we all should support without further delay.

Former Secretary of Homeland Security and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R) now runs the consulting firm Ridge Global LLC. Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) is president of the New School in New York City.

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