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Edward Humes Headshot

Where the River is Shallow

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If you visited the official, taxpayer-financed website of the US House Veterans Affairs Committee recently, you would have found a remarkable headline at the very top of the page: "Pelosi Majority would abandon system that provided strong veterans budgets, premier health care and effective oversight."

A diatribe from committee chairman Steve Buyer (R-IN) ensued, predicting doom and despair for veterans should voters cast out a supposedly vet-loving Republican majority come November 8 and install in its place that alleged Democratic hater of troops, Nancy Pelosi, as majority leader.

Within a day of my inquiring how the official, nonpartisan website for a standing House committee could be used to present such a nakedly partisan, political message, the item vanished from the committee's internet presence, and the associated article was scrubbed from view (but not from "The Google," or from the PDF file preserved on my own hard drive).

Aside from the fact that using government resources for political messages is illegal, and the notion that a Republican majority can be counted on to provide more oversight of President Bush's veterans policy (or any other of his policies) is laughable on its face, there's a bigger problem with the fear-mongering headline that sat since October 20 atop the website of the house committee charged with protecting our veterans:

It's a lie.

The simple fact is that Pelosi's legislative record on supporting veterans health care, education and other benefits is among the best in the House, while Buyer's ranges from mediocre to atrocious, depending on who's doing the rating. This is not a subjective judgment, but is based on two separate analyses of voting records by distinctly different veterans organizations - the venerable Disabled Veterans of America, and the upstart Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. (Check the ratings yourself here and here.)

It's the current Republican leadership in Congress and the White House that own the worst record for supporting veterans legislation - a surprising reality utterly at odds with their support-the-troops rhetoric. Some of the loudest proponents of the war - embattled Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio comes to mind - have some of the poorest records for supporting veterans (overall, Senate Republicans had a "D" average from the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans' group), while the most prominent war critics and political liberals - Ted Kennedy, for one- have been the strongest supporters of vets' legislation (the Senate Democrats had a B+ average).

These votes touch almost every aspect of veterans' lives: The will of the majority has been to cut funds for brain injury research (more than 3,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered severe brain trauma); to use phony prewar statistics to calculate an unrealistically low but politically palatable cost estimate for veterans health care (causing a $3 billion budget shortfall now coming due); and to rebuff Democratic attempts to correct inequities in the G.I. Bill that cheat National Guard and reserve troops (who have contributed half the fighting force in Iraq and Afghanistan) out of college aid.

Oddly, this substantive measure of support for the troops has gotten almost no media play this election season - nothing compared to last week's absurd brouhaha over John Kerry's recently botched punch line about the poorly educated being stranded in Iraq (context makes it clear Kerry intended a jab at our C-student president's failed war, not the troops bravely fighting it, and the media's complicity in portraying partisan spin as genuine controversy is nothing short of shameful). The media's curious inattention to real disdain for the troops persisted even when 400 wounded and disabled veterans came to Congress and booed Buyer and other Republican committee members during the hearings in which the deliberate $3-billion shortfall was engineered. Buyer's dismissive, insulting response: "Where the river is the shallowest, it makes the most noise." This was the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee speaking about the concerns and anger of wounded combat veterans - as quoted in, of all places, Stars and Stripes. Buyer followed up with a move to ban testimony of the service organizations at future hearings.

This unapologetic, shoot-the-messenger behavior is in stark contrast to the gold-standard for veterans legislation set in 1944 with the original G.I. Bill of Rights, crafted in the midst of a cataclysmic war by Franklin Roosevelt, a bipartisan Congress, and the American Legion -- the granddaddy of veterans service organizations, whose representatives not only testified, but actually wrote the first draft of one of the greatest legislative accomplishments in history. As I mentioned in my post last week, the lines World War II veterans waited in more than five decades ago to sign up for free college educations and no-money-down home loans have been replaced by bread lines at military bases, where the families of our brave men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are reduced to seeking donated food in order to survive. This is the shameful record that the House Veterans Affairs committee website warned must be preserved at all costs in the upcoming election. Beneath the rah-rah rhetoric, they have taken us from a nation that used veterans benefits to reinvent the American dream and to give golden opportunities to an entire generation, to an America that treats its returning warriors disgracefully.

Pelosi would not comment on the now-vanished jab at her on the veterans committee website. However, she took her own shot at the "moral priorities" of the "Republican Rubber Stamp Congress" she hopes to unseat in the midterm elections: "On the battlefield, our troops pledge to leave no soldier behind. Here at home, we must leave no veteran behind."

Unfortunately, this is not merely a story of shortchanged veterans and hypocritical congressmen who support war but not warriors. That's just an awful symptom of a bigger problem: a wholesale failure to invest in America's future. Just imagine how a politician today would be mocked if he proposed offering an entire generation free college (with stipends), subsidized mortgages, job training and medical care. Yet today's unthinkable was yesterday's matter of course when different sorts of leaders guided and united the country. There was no hesitation, no griping about government being the problem, not the solution. This bit of modern conventional wisdom -- the animating principal of the government haters now in charge of our government -- would have seemed like crazy talk back then to most Americans. They knew then what we've forgotten today: America desperately needs to invest continually in its future, something we are failing to do today.

Had FDR lived to serve out a last term in peacetime, America would have had a program of national service, in which young people contribute their time and energy to good works (in and out of the military), and receive educational and other benefits in return. What heights could we have lifted our young people with the half trillion dollars flushed so far down the Iraq drain - and the even larger sum that staying the course will undoubtedly cost in the future? Instead, the American Dream so generously nurtured through the G.I. Bill after World War II is now under siege, from the cost of college to the cost of homeownership to the shrinking middle class to the declining numbers of advanced engineering and science degrees our young people earn.
Now we have the unbearable sight of bread lines for the families of our honored military men and women, inadequate budgets to care for wounded veterans, G.I. Bill college benefits that disappear in a haze of Pentagon fine print - and of congressmen and a president who point fingers everywhere but the mirror.