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Congress: Money for War, But No Money for the Troops?

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When it comes to hypocritical "Support the Troops" rhetoric, I thought I'd seen it all. But I was wrong. This week, a small group of Democrats are using back door dealings to torpedo the widely-supported new GI Bill. For anyone new to the issue, here's the bottom line up front:

In 1944, FDR signed the original GI Bill, which gave every veteran a chance to go to college. It paid for tuition, fees, and books, and gave veterans a living stipend. The GI Bill helped the "Greatest Generation" readjust to civilian life, it helped pull us out of a post-war recession, and it helped build the middle class. Every dollar spent on educational benefits under the original GI Bill added at least seven dollars to the national economy.

Today, 1.7 million troops have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, but the GI Bill no longer covers anything like the cost of college. So a bipartisan coalition of veterans now serving in the Senate introduced a new GI Bill, modeled on the World War II legislation. This bill recently got added to the war funding bill currently in Congress.

In the real world, two things are obvious:

1) If you send troops to war, caring for the veterans who come home is an unavoidable and necessary cost of that war.
2) The GI Bill is a proven program, and a smart financial investment that pays for itself.

It just makes sense. That's why the 300-plus Senators and Representatives from both parties and all the major veterans organizations in America have endorsed the legislation.

In Washington, however, it seems like nothing is ever easy. A couple of Congressmen, including Rep. John Tanner (D-TN), Jim Cooper (D-TN), and Allen Boyd (D-FL), all members of the Blue Dog Coalition, have gotten together to OPPOSE paying for the GI Bill this week. (If you live in their districts, you can urge them to support the GI Bill by clicking here.)

As Representative Tanner quipped, "Some of us oppose creating a new entitlement program in an emergency spending bill, whether it's butchers, bakers or candlestick makers." Really? Does the Congressman usually explain major policy decisions by quoting Mother Goose?

Seriously, though--by saying that the GI Bill shouldn't be in the war funding bill, Representative Tanner is supporting the war, but not the warriors. That kind of thinking used to only appear in parodies. Moreover, these Representatives insist on referring to the GI Bill as a "new entitlement" - even though we've had a GI Bill for more than 60 years. But the most remarkable logical pirouette they've offered so far is that they oppose the GI Bill because they are "fiscal conservatives."

Our government has been paying for basically the entire war "off-budget"--the equivalent of racking up billions in credit card debt. Everyone thinks this is a bad way of doing business. But it's not the whole supplemental that these Congressmen are threatening to vote against; it's just the GI Bill. For those of you playing along at home, here's what that looks like:

This circle is the spending bill we're talking about. The big red part? That's spending that is A-OK with these Congressmen (more than $180 billion). It's that tiny blue sliver that represents the GI Bill, and that's the dealbreaker for these folks ($780 million).

It's absurd. Anyone who can find the money to fund the war has no excuse for voting against the tiny fraction of money needed for veterans' education benefits. The fiscal conservative argument seems even more ludicrous once you realize that even five years of spending on the GI Bill would only cost as much as nine weeks of war in Iraq.

While their arguments seem asinine to anyone outside the Beltway, they are putting a serious speedbump in the way of the new GI Bill. Do I think sanity will prevail on this issue? I hope so. One of the leaders of the Blue Dogs is Representative Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin (D-SD), a dedicated supporter of veterans. She may be able to get her troops in line. If not, I'd love to see those members of Congress find a way to explain to their constituents in an election year that they voted for a $170-billion war bill, and then also voted to nickel-and-dime the troops who are fighting that war.

As President Roosevelt said, the GI Bill "gives emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down." Please help us show these members of Congress that Americans' support for our troops is no different today than it was 60 years ago. You can join us at www.GIBIll2008.org.


UPDATE (As of 1:19AM Wednesday): Good news. It looks like a deal was reached late Tuesday night. Check out this article from the Politico.

The vote in the House should be on Thursday. There is still a long fight ahead before we can claim victory. Thank you to all of you who called, signed the petition and told your friends. Please check www.IAVA.org for all the latest.