Military Update: Group hopes to ease GI Bill process

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

Veterans and service members eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill already have an outstanding education benefit. But it soon could become even more valuable and easier to use.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Tuesday released details of the GI Bill reform package it approved two weeks ago. It includes almost every change sought by veterans’ service organizations, institutes of higher learning, trade unions, vocational schools and VA administrators.

The only two key elements missing are an estimate from the Congressional Budget Office on what these reforms will cost, and a plan to pay for them as worries over deficit spending mounts in Washington D.C.

The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act of 2010 (S 3447) would expand education options beyond the pursuit of a college degree and into almost any type of training a veteran might want.

At the same time, S 3447 would enhance and simplify the payment formula, ease confusion for students and pare administrative headaches for schools. The new GI Bill also would be opened to at least 80,000 National Guard members mobilized since 9-11 who previously were denied coverage.

And its monthly living allowance would be used in a special way to support enrollment in apprenticeships and on-the-job training programs. These are just some of the highlights. Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), committee chairman, is leading the reform effort and drawing bipartisan support. The CBO cost estimate should be known before Congress returns in September when attention will turn to finding ways to pay for the bill.

Rep. Walter Minnick (D-Idaho) has introduced a near identical bill in the House (HR 5933). Among its early co-sponsors is Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. His committee plans its own hearing on GI Bill reform Sept. 16, a move that raises hope among veterans’ groups and educators that a final bill could be passed this year, even with elections in November and a lameduck Congress thereafter.

At the Senate’s GI Bill reform hearing in July, senior officials with the departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense expressed support for most changes in Akaka’s bill. But at the urging of VA officials most provisions wouldn’t take effect until Aug. 1, 2011, to allow sufficient time to implement.

Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), ranking Republican on the committee, made clear in July he was miffed at Akaka for introducing S 3447 alone, in May, after calling in April for bipartisan cooperation on GI Bill reform. At the markup hearing Aug. 5, however, Burr praised the bill and the many changes Akaka accepted on feedback from veteran groups, educators and colleagues.

The bill, Burr said, “would help create a program that will be fair and generous, no matter where a veteran lives or chooses to go to school.” By covering vocational training, it “would allow more veterans and their families to pursue educational programs that best meet their needs.”

Akaka’s original bill “was good,” said Eric Hilleman, national legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “The one he’s put out [of committee] is outstanding. We’re super-excited about it.”

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: