WASHINGTON — Plans for GI Bill reforms this year are all but dead after a high-profile, emotional fight among veterans advocates in recent days over proposed dramatic changes to the popular benefit.
The conflict comes after months of behind-the-scenes work testing the idea of charging future active-duty troops for an improved veterans education benefit, a proposal that proved more controversial when it became public sooner than supporters had anticipated.
But a casualty of the fight may be a series of less sensational changes to veterans education benefits that a host of advocacy groups had hoped to push through Congress this year.
Now, the legislative appetite for those moves appears gone. House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn., called the strong negative response from some groups to the pay-in idea "a giant step backwards" for GI Bill debate on Capitol Hill this year.
"We've got plenty of other issues before us already," he said. "We have to fix the (VA) Choice program. There are big IT issues to fix at VA.
"We can't let one issue suck up all the oxygen in the room."
Veterans groups on both sides of the fight say they're hopeful they can change Roe's mind. Still, his comments are a stark change from the multiple GI Bill roundtables held by the committee since January, where a host of veterans groups offered ideas on possible improvements to the education benefits.
They include expanding eligibility to certain reservists currently excluded from the Post-9/11 GI Bill — a benefit that awards 36 months of tuition and a monthly housing stipend to all eligible troops, with no pay in — and more money for scholarships for families of service members killed on duty.
Those plans have broad support in the veterans community, but they also come with a problematic price tag. Officials at Student Veterans of America estimate that package of expansion ideas will cost about $3 billion over the next decade, a significant amount for a Republican-run Congress eyeing the federal deficit.
Attempts to pass similar changes last year were stalled when lawmakers linked the funding to trims in the current GI Bill. A House proposal to cut housing stipends for dependents of veterans using the benefits was met with protests on Capitol Hill. A Senate plan to reduce all housing stipends by a small percentage received an even harsher response.
Officials at SVA in recent years have viewed those proposals not as temporary problems but as long-term threats to the existence of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
"It's naive to think the support for veterans will always be as high as it is now," said Will Hubbard, SVA's vice president of government affairs. "We've seen cuts to the benefit in the past.
"Some are saying there is no wolf lurking. I hate to say it, but it's a real thing."
The response from SVA — founded as part of the 2008 debate over improving veterans education benefits — has been their "Forever GI Bill" campaign.
That includes significant research work proving the value of the benefit in terms of veterans’ graduation and employment rates, as well as an attempt to shift public perception of the tuition payouts from a wartime benefit (the Post-9/11 GI Bill was passed in large part as a recruiting tool at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars) to a benefit for military service anytime.
It also envisions consolidating all of the existing GI Bill benefits into a single offering, with generous post-9/11 benefit payouts as a framework for the new program. That provision includes a pay-in of $2,400 from future troops to be eligible to collect the benefit after service, which sparked the controversy.
Hubbard said the pay-in idea is similar to how previous benefits, in particular the the Montgomery GI Bill, were handled. Not only would it raise money for the desired expansions, Hubbard argued, but it would also make it more difficult for lawmakers to trim benefits later because of the personal investment involved.
But it’s a significant shift in how the GI Bill is viewed by many in the Iraq and Afghanistan generation of veterans. When the new benefit was approved by Congress in 2008, basing the entitlement on military service time instead of troops’ contributions was a key focus for many advocates.
Last year, officials at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America publicly stated they will oppose any cuts or pay-ins for the education benefit. Leaders at Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion expressed concerns with the idea of a pay-in during the congressional roundtables in recent months.
But lawmakers and supporters of the idea drafted legislation earlier this month on the topic and scheduled a hearing for April 26 for a formal public debate on the idea. Opponents took that as a signal the idea was gaining momentum and their objections were being ignored.
"We were very honest all along that we would be opposed to this," said Kayda Keleher, legislative associate for Veterans of Foreign Wars. "We felt it was best that we let it be known publicly where we stood before the hearing took place."
That response took the form of a scathing news release April 18, labeling the idea "a tax on troops" that named Roe as the author of the draft bill (his staff said he did not intend on sponsoring the legislation) and accusing lawmakers of looking to find savings at the expense of veterans.
Within hours, officials with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America released a similar statement repeating the "tax" line. Leaders from veterans groups involved accused each other of broken promises on releasing information, exaggeration and outright lies. Democratic lawmakers on the committee quickly distanced themselves from the idea.
Within days, the hearing was canceled.
"This proposal was so outrageous, we doubted it would actually ever move forward to a public debate," said Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "Now that it has, our members and the American people have spoken, and they think it is unacceptable."
SVA officials have pushed back on that. Several groups — including Vietnam Veterans of America, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, the Association of the Untied States Navy and Concerned Veterans for America — have come out in favor of the pay-in plan, at least as a general concept.
And even though the hearing was meant to be the public unveiling of debate on the topic, its cancellation is not a death knell for the proposal, according to Hubbard.
"This is just the beginning of this conversation," Hubbard said. "We’re disappointed that several groups out there are not interested in having the conversation. But it’s something we’ll continue to look at."
Advocates in the "Forever GI Bill" camp are pressing for an open debate on the idea, calling it an important step toward protecting the education benefit for decades to come.
"We can’t shut down debate before it begins and expect to help those that the GI Bill leaves behind," John Rowan, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America, said in a statement. "We’re excited to talk about closing loopholes, and expanding and protecting this benefit."
But they also acknowledge they need a better response to the "tax" label, which damaged the idea almost immediately, and a better explanation for why a change is needed sooner rather than later.
Opponents say regardless of the marketing of the education benefit pay-in, it’s a non-starter.
Keleher said the sooner lawmakers completely dump the pay-in proposal, the sooner they can start looking to other areas to fund the needed GI Bill expansions. Rieckhoff echoed that.
"The GI Bill is a cost of war," he said. "As along as America is at war, and it looks like that'll be for the indefinite future, it's a price America must find a way to pay for."
But it may not be a price that’s explored much for the rest of this year. Roe said while he’s open to discussion on the topic in the coming months, it’s not one of the committee’s top priorities during that time frame.
"I’m disappointed with the backlash," he said. "Our idea was to expand benefits. We’ll continue to work on that.
"But there are a lot of big lifts for us to do."
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.