All politicians say they want to help veterans. So why aren't they doing more?
A group of veterans and civilians in New York's Veterans Day Parade in November. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty
No matter how dysfunctional politics become, conventional wisdom holds that everyone in DC can still agree and act on veterans’ issues. Especially in the wake of the scandals that have come to light since 2014 about long wait times, malfeasance, and cover-ups in the Veterans Affairs (VA) medical system, there’s been a burst of public and legislative pressure to improve the department’s accountability and capacity.
Even amid the legislative chaos and inaction of the first year of the Trump administration, Congress passed about a dozen veterans’ issues bills. That included the largest expansion to GI Bill benefits in over a decade along with notable reforms to whistleblower protections, the benefit appeals processes, and hiring and firing practices within the VA. These were undoubtedly among Congress’s greatest achievements in 2017. In fact, according to American Legion legislative affairs expert Matt Shuman, “2017 was, without question, one of the most successful years with respect to veterans’ legislation, probably within the last couple of decades.”
But despite everyone up to and including Donald Trump insisting that they’re all-in on helping vets in any way needed—“I will not stop until our veterans are properly taken care of,” he said during last week’s State of the Union address—many big-ticket items veteran groups have been asking for for years have gone unaddressed.
Several of the veterans’ affairs bills passed in 2017, were routine or necessary measures, like legislation addressing cost-of-living adjustments to benefit payouts or stopgap funding for an ostensibly short-term program allowing veterans to get care from private providers when they are not close to a VA facility or the closest facility lacks capacity. Many more were what Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, calls “low-hanging fruit”—bills that enacted universally popular VA reforms at little or no cost.
Arguably the most important veteran-related bill of the last year, the massive expansion to GI Bill benefits, was (like most other big vet bills) the result of years of negotiations. It only passed because veterans service groups agreed to back a provision to pay for benefit expansions by tweaking down baseline housing assistance levels for future veterans and lowering the rate of growth on that assistance in certain areas. Offsets such as these are essentially a perquisite for any legislation proposing new or expanded benefits, veterans’ or otherwise, thanks in large part to anti-spending ideology from congressional fiscal hawks.
Some veteran-backed bills have stalled because Congress is focused on other priorities or because they are too niche or technical to attract mass attention and support. Some initiatives, like making it easier to pursue medical marijuana research run aground on wider legal and political issues. But for most veteran-backed bills, cost is the major barrier.
Many of the proposals veterans’ groups have been stumping for involve new or expanded benefits. We’re talking proposals like extending Agent Orange–linked benefits to a long overlooked category of Vietnam veterans or post-9/11 caregiver support to pre-9/11 vets. On the more innovative side, there are proposals to expand VA services for female veterans. At the most “radical” end, ideas include extending existing benefits to tens of thousands of veterans with less than honorable discharges—currently they are denied most benefits even though in many cases those discharges may have resulted from behaviors tied to service-linked disorders.
None of these proposals seem too controversial, especially among veterans’ groups and their supporters. But they are expensive. And that becomes a major barrier to passage, because like with last year’s GI Bill expansion, Congress—especially fiscally conservative actors—wants the people backing these proposals to find or agree to cuts to other programs to cover their costs.
This understandably rubs some veterans the wrong way.
“The idea that we have to find offsets to pay for our earned benefits doesn’t appreciate the idea that our benefits are the cost of war,” said Rieckhoff. “Nobody asked me to find ways to pay for the bullets when I went to Iraq. Don’t tell me I have to figure out how to pay for my tuition when I get home… We should not be put in a position to decide if we should cut a widow’s benefits to pay for another program.”
And as of this year, activists like Kris Goldsmith of High Ground Veterans Advocacy believe, all or most practical offsets most veterans groups would agree to back for any kind of meaningful benefits expansion have all but dried up, leaving all of these proposals dead in the water.
“This is a frustration I think a lot of vets in the community aren’t talking about much in the open, because they’re afraid of burning bridges,” said Goldsmith. However it riles him up that “our country can afford a deficit when it comes to making donors more wealthy,” as per his reading of the 2017 GOP tax bill, “but when it comes to healing the wounds of war, every penny counts.”
“Nobody asked me to find ways to pay for the bullets when I went to Iraq. Don’t tell me I have to figure out how to pay for my tuition when I get home." –Paul Rieckhoff
Optimistic veterans’ groups believe the community still has the political clout and grassroots support to convince Congress to back whatever they feel is truly necessary, even if it involves funding sans offsets. Shuman of the American Legion insists that election years like 2018 can be especially productive, as individuals up re-election seek veteran support, giving groups leverage to wrest promises out of them.
“If Donald Trump stood up” during the State of the Union “and said, ‘hey, we want to change the GI Bill to pay for college for every veteran in American and we need you all to give 50 cents,’” acknowledged the more skeptical Rieckhoff, most Americans would do it without question.
But other veterans advocates point out that not every group shares priorities on which proposals to push for first, and effective pressure usually requires sustained, unanimous advocacy. Rieckhoff notes that veterans are losing political clout as their demographics shrink relative to the total population. And Goldsmith says popular and political rhetoric in favor of veterans is shallower than most think. “Generally, people support veterans,” he said. “But when it comes to an increase in their responsibility in the form of taxes, they are more wishy-washy.”
“Our country is having a stupid debate about standing for the flag,” he added, “when no one seems to be arguing nearly as passionately about saying that every vet who’s sick needs full, government-provided healthcare. When is, say, Sean Hannity getting on his program every night and yelling about how Congress and the American people are refusing to pay for healthcare for sick Vietnam vets?”
All of the advocates I’ve spoken to suspect we’re still going to see veterans’ issues legislation passed in the years to come. But these will likely be more incremental moves building off of recent legislation rather than major initiatives to address issues veterans have advocated for years.
Behind these restricted legislative accomplishments, Rieckhoff worries conservatives will try to nickel-and-dime benefits to the nub with “fees and other tricky little ways” to cut costs, forcing groups onto the defensive “to defend the ground that we’ve taken… like with social security.”
Almost every advocate I’ve spoken to is also worried that conservatives will slowly ramp up a longstanding effort to flip popular discontent with the VA into incremental or broad legislation to privatize veterans’ healthcare. Veterans’ service organizations almost uniformly oppose this idea, as they believe it will lead to less transparent and less reliable care; the VA actually provides fantastic services when it has the proper resources. But conservatives like the Koch Brothers are still getting ready to gun hard for privatization. “Do you watch Game of Thrones?” asked Rieckhoff. “‘Winter is coming.’”
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