As it applies to veterans, it is time for pay-go to go

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Last year, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act bill was one for the few substantive legislative initiatives to pass the House of Representatives unanimously. Although the bill died in the Senate, 98 Senators were willing to allow unanimous consent. The stumbling block, as it has been in previous years was the offset requirements of the pay-as-you-go.

Pay-go, enacted in 2010, requires increases in new benefits be offset by a corresponding decrease in other benefits. In other words, restoring the presumption of herbicide exposure to Navy veterans who served in the bays, harbors and territorial sea of Vietnam required a reduction of benefits or a corresponding funding increase.

{mosads}In 2015 Military-Veterans Advocacy proposed financing the bill with cost of living round downs. This would require annual cost of living increases to be rounded down to the nearest dollar. The most it would cost any one veteran would be $11.88 per year but would raise $1.8 billion to cover 90,000 additional veterans. Led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), with support from the Veterans of Foreign War (VFW) and Disabled American Veterans (DAV), the effort was defeated. A similar attempt to use this offset in 2017 again drew the ire of the VFW and DAV and was crushed by then House Ranking Member Tim Walz (D-Minn.).

In 2016 Military-Veterans Advocacy worked closely with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and the Judiciary Committee to forge an offset using a surcharge for foreign student visa fees. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) , then Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee torpedoed that idea and the Blue Water Navy bill with it.

More recently, pay-go sank another Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act. Staff members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee cobbled together an offset by increasing some veterans home loan fees. In a show of bipartisan support the bill passed the House 382-0. In the Senate, however, anti-veteran elements struck back.

The VA reversed their previous support of the bill, repeating the often-refuted allegations that the science did not support the exposure. Then several VSOs attacked the PAYGO offset that they had previously approved.

In a Sept. 19, 2018 letter to Senate Veterans Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, the VFW and DAV, joined by the American Legion and the Paralyzed Veterans of America withdrew their support from the jumbo loan fee provisions of the pay-go offset.

After ten weeks of opposition, these groups agreed to support the bill but only if the jumbo loan fee provisions were removed in the 116th Congress. During this VSO forced hiatus, the VA was able to convince CBO to add another $1.3 billion to their score — thrusting the cost above the bills pay-go offset. This led to holds by Senators Enzi of Wyoming and Lee of Utah. Despite many efforts to force the bills passage, including belated lip service from the VFW, the bill died in the Senate.

Unfortunately, the fate of the “Blue Water Navy” bill is typical of veteran’s legislation. Hobbled by the draconian pay-go rules, legislation to cover the victims of military toxic exposure languishes in committee. As a result, casualties of herbicides, burn pits, radiation, contaminated water supplies, PCBs and other self-inflicted wounds go without compensation or medical benefits.

The change in control of the House of Representatives has brought no relief. The new Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reenacted the pay-go provisions. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), has introduced legislation to repeal the rule.

The Jayapal bill, HR 242, has 32 Democrat supporters and zero Republican support. It is not expected to pass.

What could pass, and perhaps generate some GOP support, is an exception for veterans. Veterans believe that they have bought and paid for their disabilities by their service to the nation. Here, unlike other entitlements or other mandatory benefits, disabilities were caused by the government and flowed directly from government service.

The VSOs are singularly unhelpful in this regard. The VFW, and others tout that they will oppose taking money from one veteran to pay for another’s benefits. On the face of it, their position is noble, but it ignores the realities of pay-go.

The VSOs tell Congress it is their job to come up with funding then grandstand and criticize congressional funding efforts. As a result, toxic exposure victims continue to sicken and die without relief. Veterans slide into bankruptcy while trying to pay for their own medical costs as their declining years come early. This is a national disgrace. We need to keep our promise to veterans. Under current law that will not happen.

John B. Wells is a retired Navy Commander. After retirement he became an attorney practicing military and veterans’ law. He is Executive Director of the nonprofit Military-Veterans Advocacy, In and a proponent of veterans benefits legislation.

Tags Bernie Sanders Chuck Grassley Johnny Isakson Nancy Pelosi Patrick Leahy Pramila Jayapal Tim Walz

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