The Most Important Payback of Them All

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO of Educational Policy Institute and EPI International

For a little US news this week, last night, the House of Representatives killed a $163 billion bill to fund the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the first time that a large congregation of the GOP has joined the House Democrats in doing so. This was a somewhat unexpected occasion, but one that certainly sends a strong message to the White House and perhaps to congressional hawks.

However, the real story is what the House did pass last night: a wholesale increase in funding for the GI Bill, equivalent to the full cost of a public four-year degree plus some extra for cost of living expenses. This bill would be the largest amendment to the GI Bill since the Bill was introduced as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act in 1944. In a rather interesting strategy, the Democrats divided the war-related bill into three parts, since they expected the Republicans to support the war funding. But the Republicans changed their tack and did not support the Administration, providing much fodder for the talking heads on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox last night.

The new Bill is largely the brainchild of Virginia Senator Jim Webb, a Vietnam vet who ousted the once-popular and former Virginia governor George Allen in the 2006 election (can you say “Macaca?”). In an extraordinary short period, Webb has made a name for himself in the selective Senate Chambers, and now has his name bandied about as a VP possibility on the Dem side of the ticket. Webb came in to Congress as an opponent of the Iraq war, and made headlines for not shaking President Bush’s hand during an official ceremony at the start of the term, a performance of etiquette that did not endear the Senator to, well, anybody. Since then, Webb has pushed on and attached himself to the plight of soldiers returning from the Middle East and other parts of the world.

Back in World War II, the Roosevelt Administration understood that some program was necessary to support GIs on their return to the US, and not just for altruistic reasons. Yes, the nation had a responsibility to support its troops who fought for freedom, but just as interesting, there needed to be a policy in place to ensure that hundreds of thousands of GIs did not return and flood the job market, which would surely have pushed the US back into a depression. Thus, the GI Bill had three significant impacts: (1) it supported the returning GIs by giving them access to an education that probably would have eluded them otherwise; (2) it allowed for a gradual re-integration of GIs into the working economy; and (3) it created a huge boon and boost to the higher education system. As reported in Wikipedia, for example, the University of Michigan grew from an enrollment of 10,000 in 1940 to 30,000 by 1948.

Web has offered a “Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act” (S22/HR 5740) for consideration by the House and the Senate. Last night, the House passed HR 5740 by a margin of 256-166; about 15 votes (of those who voted, anyway) shy of being veto-proof by the president (who has publicly stated that he will veto the bill). On the Senate side, the Bill has 58 co-sponsors, including GOP Senators Warner, Domenici, and Hagel, and is only nine votes shy of veto-proof.

Opponents to the Bill say that we cannot afford to push another tax button to pay for the new GI Bill and that the Bill would entice military members to leave the service (A statement that the President has publically made). Alternatively, proponents say we cannot afford not to; that we have a moral obligation to give back to those who serve the country at home and abroad. The former is particularly interesting, in light of the $600 billion spend thus far on the two wars plus the $163 billion which hangs in the balance, making this the most expensive war since WWII.

With regard to numbers, the Bill is estimated to cost taxpayers $52 billion over 10 years, which the Democrats have suggested to be paid via a tax increase on, get this–individuals who earn more than $500,000 (couples over $1,000,000). This is the tax that the GOP suggests is outrageous. Please. GOP Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, as quoted in today’s Washington Post, says that this Bill would “bust the budget with billions in non-emergency spending but also raise taxes on small business. I can’t think of a worse time to implement a tax increase with a weak economy that is struggling to create and grow jobs.” Perhaps Representative Ryan, who has served on Capitol Hill since graduation from Miami University in 1992, needs to go back to Oxford, Ohio (EDITORS NOTE: he would not be eligible for the GI Bill), where he might learn that during a recession, there is a large need for education and retraining, which the GI Bill supports. Not to pile on, but this is the same guy who voted against the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, supported the eavesdropping act, and voted against troop withdrawal from Iraq. He did support the Boy Scouts yesterday in HR 5872 (The Boy Scouts of America Centennial Commemorative Coin Act), so good on you, Mr. Congressman.

Readers may not believe this, but I truly do not mean to be political here. I can name dozens of Democrats that would be better off finding other forms of employment and similarly dozens of GOP members that rise to the highest standards of Congress. It is the hypocrisy of certain members of Congress that drives me crazy. Whether you are “with us or against us,” we must support the troops no matter what, unless, of course, it means a slight tax increase (0.5 percent) on the most affluent members of society—on a Bill to provide support to our volunteer Army, Navy, and Marine Corps members who, on the whole, are the least educated of society (they enter the service at 18 or 19 years old, remember).

Let’s play politics where politics need to be played. This Bill doesn’t belong in that category.

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