G.I. Bill sponsor criticizes alternative

In perhaps any other year, the new Republican plan for enhancing the Montgomery G.I. Bill, which Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced this week with Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, would win high praise from advocates for service members and veterans.

But momentum is building on Capitol Hill to pass S. 22, Sen. Jim Webb’s hefty new G.I. Bill to replace Montgomery G.I. Bill for any service member — active, Guard or Reserve — with qualifying active duty service since the 9/11 attacks. That leaves the Republican plan a few critical features short of an acceptable replacement for S. 22 among leaders of G.I. 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 reform bill, HR 5684, which the House Veterans Affairs Committee endorsed April 29.

Graham’s bill would raise full-time G.I. Bill 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 enhancement thresholds at six and 12 years of service. After six years, members could transfer half of any unused G.I. Bill 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 G.I. Bill 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.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticized Webb’s bill as a detriment to service-retention efforts in a 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 in enough alluring features to draw bipartisan support away 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 G.I. Bill benefits as active duty peers. Finally, the Webb plan is designed so that benefits automatically keep pace with the cost of public college education.

But Graham, in a phone interview, characterized Webb’s bill as “unworkable.” He said it would cost the VA about $250 million a year just to administer and that the plan lacks a transferability option to help families of careerists met their education goals.

“What I like about our approach is it takes an existing program that works well and adds benefits,” Graham said. Webb’s idea to ensure that benefits cover the cost of the most expensive public college or university in any state “creates disparity between the states in an unfair way,” Graham said. “In Michigan, I’ve been told, it’s like $13,000. In North Carolina, because they subsidize public education, it’s like $6,000. That makes no sense to me.”

Graham’s bill would raise the full-time G.I. Bill benefit to $1,500, which is about the national average cost of a public college. That amount would be adjusted annually using the government’s Consumer Price Index.

Because many careerists can and do earn an in-service degree using tuition assistance programs, a transferability option is sure to become a popular feature for saving education costs for children or to help spouses launch their own careers, Graham said.

But his transferability option is more tentative than it appears, said one G.I. Bill reformer who has studied Graham’s bill. It would be left to the services, not the Department of Veterans Affairs, to fund that portion of the Graham plan. So a service branch might choose, from year to year, to fund other retention incentives, such as re-enlistment bonuses, if they are viewed as more effective for keeping critical skills than family G.I. Bill benefits.

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