A 40-year wrong corrected: Bipartisanship can work

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It took more than 40 years to correct a legislative wrong, but the fix has been made. Leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees — Democrats and Republicans — came together to pass the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that President Trump signed into law on Dec. 20. The legislation provides the Department of Defense (DOD) and the military services the authority to execute on the funding provided by the recent appropriations bill. 

One provision in the new bill repeals a law that has been at the heart of the legislative wrong — the so-called “widow’s tax.” Its repeal is a clear demonstration that bipartisanship can, and still does, work.

Under the previous law, military survivors whose sponsors died from service-connected causes had to forfeit part or all of their purchased military survivor benefits when they received Dependency and Indemnity Compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). These separate benefits offset each other, meaning every dollar a widow or widower received in military survivor benefits was reduced to fund the compensation received from the VA.

In effect, military survivor benefits became the only insurance-type product someone paid into but was legally prohibited from collecting.

This was an incomprehensible injustice that affected more than 65,000 surviving spouses and families across the country. In short, this was money that spouses of service members thought they would receive — and should be receiving — but was taken from them. 

The past legislation, in essence, represented a contradiction of the clarion call that our service members’ sacrifice would never be forgotten. It further eroded trust among the families of the fallen as, one by one, they became forgotten at a time when support was needed the most.

The Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) has led an effort for decades to correct this injustice. This year, standalone legislation to repeal the widow’s tax earned overwhelming bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress: 383 House and 77 Senate co-sponsors. 

President Trump’s impeachment has made more clear the instances of partisanship that drive and control the tempo on Capitol Hill. Passage of the widow’s tax — and the entire NDAA, for that matter — demonstrates a bipartisan resolve that reminds us that when it comes to “doing the right thing,” Congress can and will act accordingly. 

Other key elements in the NDAA, for example, include a 3.1 percent pay raise for our active-duty personnel and a provision that prohibits DOD and the services from reducing medical end strength authorizations until they complete a more comprehensive study. 

DOD had proposed cutting 18,000 medical positions across all the services — a 20 percent force reduction. The proposal would lead to the dismantlement of military medicine and jeopardize force readiness. A cut of this magnitude would constitute a qualitative change to the entire medical health system, clearly impacting medical care to our troops on the battlefield and access to care for our service members and their families.

Fortunately, MOAA prompted both Republicans and Democrats to question the risk the cuts would have on readiness. Until a thorough analysis is completed, the continuation of cuts is prohibited.

Like the widow’s tax, the proposal to cut the medical positions represented a contradiction to the oft-stated phrase “Thank you for your service” that service members, their families and veterans are frequently greeted with. That phrase rings hollow when compared to actions that reduce medical capabilities for our service members and beneficiaries. 

An organization’s budget is a direct reflection of its priorities. When it comes to the defense budget, there should never be a question about what should be the highest priority: service members and their families. The FY2020 NDAA demonstrates how bipartisanship in Congress can work in concert with the DOD to responsibly authorize expenditures, while highlighting how the system of checks and balances can work to ensure that priorities are established and met.

A commander early on in my career would always state: “Mission first, but people always.” It’s a philosophy that should guide all of us.

Congratulations are in order for our Congress and the Trump administration for seeing the NDAA through to fruition, keeping the right balance of mission first, but people always. Well done.

Tom Jurkowsky is a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and sits on the board of the nonprofit Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), which advocates for a strong national defense and for military service members. Follow on Twitter @MilitaryOfficer.

Tags Donald Trump Military Officers Association of America National Defense Authorization Act United States Department of Defense widow's tax

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