House GOP preps DOD death benefits fix

House Republicans are drafting legislation that would allow the Pentagon to pay out death benefits that have been stopped during the government shutdown, according to congressional aides.

The bill in the works would explicitly allow the Pentagon to make payments of $100,000 to the survivors of troops who are killed.

The halted death benefits have sparked a clash between the Pentagon and congressional Republicans over whether a law to pay the military during the shutdown that passed last week allows the Pentagon to pay death gratuities.

Pentagon officials say they are unable to pay the death benefits during the shutdown because the benefits aren’t a paid allowance.

ADVERTISEMENT
“We have some heart-rending situations — that we are not allowed, by law, to pay death gratuities,” Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale told reporters last week, adding that the “Pay Our Military Act” did not change the situation.

“We've had a number of people die recently and we will be able to pay them, but not until the lapse of appropriation ends,” Hale said.

Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee disagree. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Tuesday accusing the Pentagon of making a “careless legal interpretation” to deny benefits.

“The Department of Defense, through a careless legal interpretation, is now mistakenly denying payments of Death Gratuity and other benefits to the families of those who make the ultimate sacrifice,” Hunter wrote.

House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said in a statement Tuesday that Congress intended for death benefits to continue as part of the military pay law that was passed last week.

"Without question, that was our clear intent," McKeon said.

House GOP aides said new legislation is now being drafted to specifically fund the death benefits during the shutdown, and one aide said it could be on the House floor as soon as Wednesday.

A senior defense official told The Hill the very fact that new legislation being drafted was evidence the Pentagon does not currently have the authority to pay out the death benefits.

“The fact that the House is developing new legislation on this matter shows Congress fully understands that DOD does not have the legal authority to provide these death benefits,” the official said. “This situation demonstrates the pure absurdity of the government shutdown and why Congress must act to get the government back open.”

A House GOP aide said House Republicans still believe the Pentagon can pay out the benefits now, because the death gratuity is included in the list of Pentagon pays and allowances. But the aide said the new bill was being moved because the Pentagon “said they need a fix to turn on the death benefit.”

“This is not the time to bicker about what authority DOD does or doesn’t have,” the aide said. “They feel like they need extra authority to make these families whole, fine, we’re happy to provide that.”

The death benefits bill would be the latest in a series of mini-funding bills the House has put forward since the shutdown began last week.

The Senate passed the measure to pay the military in a shutdown but has rejected most of the other bills.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) cited the death benefits problem in a floor speech on Tuesday urging an end to the government shutdown.

"Now the families of these fallen soldiers are being denied death benefits to help with burial of their lost loved ones because of this shameful and embarrassing government shutdown," Reid said. "There are no words to describe this situation — that America could fail the families of our fallen heroes. But the first word that comes to mind is appalling."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said it was “absurd” that the Pentagon wasn’t able to pay out death benefits, placing the blame on House Republicans for not putting a clean continuing resolution (CR) forward to fund the government.

“I’m not going to argue whether they can or can’t,” Levin said of the legal dispute. 

“They should be able to pay them out, and if the Republicans are serious about it, they’ll put a CR up for a vote in the House which allows us to get the government functioning again,” he said. “Otherwise you’re going to be arguing over every single legality of whether or not the government can do this or that under the existing law.” 

— This story was updated at 4:12 p.m.