GI Bill reform needs fine-tuning

By Tom Philpott: CNJ Columnist

In perhaps any other year, the new Republican plan for enhancing the Montgomery GI Bill, which Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) introduced this week with Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.) and John McCain (Ariz.), would win high praise from advocates for service members and veterans.

But as momentum builds on Capitol Hill to pass S. 22, Sen. Jim Webb’s hefty new GI Bill to replace MGIB for any service member — active, Guard or Reserve — with qualifying active duty service since the attacks of 9-11, the Republican plan still might be a few critical features short of an acceptable replacement for S 22 among leaders of GI Bill reform.

Graham’s bill, the Enhancement of Recruitment, Retention and Readjustment through Education Act (S 2938), is cleverly crafted and will seem generous in comparison to a more basic MGIB reform bill, HR 5684, which the House Veterans Affairs Committee endorsed April 29.

Graham’s bill would raise fulltime MGIB benefits to $1,500 a month, up from $1,101, for all users. That would include veterans and retirees who left service long before the attacks of 9-11.

It also would offer new enticements — including eligibility to transfer benefits to spouse or children — for current members who meet new MGIB-enhancement thresholds at six and 12 years of service.

After six years, members could transfer half of any unused MGIB benefits to family members. After 12 years’ service, the monthly benefit would pop up to $2,000 a month, and members could transfer 100 percent of any unused portion to spouses or children.

Other attracted features of S 2938 include an extra $500 a year for books and a fresh chance to buy into the MGIB for roughly 5,000 members still on active duty who first entered service when the only education benefit offered was the anemic Veterans Educational Assistance Program (VEAP).

Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticized Webb’s bill as a detriment to service retention efforts in an April 29 letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Gates also endorsed key features of the Graham bill without citing the bill by name or number.

Clearly the Bush administration hopes that Graham and colleagues have put enough alluring features in S 2938 to draw bipartisan support away from Webb’s bill. S 22 already has 58 co-sponsors in the Senate and 250 House members back a companion bill, HR 5740.

Service associations and veterans groups still are signaling a preference for Webb’s bill, citing its more generous benefits, enough to cover tuition and fees for the most expensive public college in any state, plus a monthly stipend based on local rental costs. Webb’s bill would allow Reserve and Guard members who mobilized multiple times to earn the same GI Bill benefits as active duty peers.