No more “Post-9/11,” no more “Montgomery” (for those who remember it, anyway): A bipartisan slate of senators and congressmen, assisted by major veterans service organizations and other vets advocacy groups, is set to unveil its plan for a “forever” GI Bill today. And in a topsy-turvy year where very little is happening in Congress policy-wise, a broad, permanent bill of rights for student veterans and their families has a pretty good chance of sailing through the government.
“These are issues that are not rushed, but they’re urgent,” says Will Hubbard, vice president of governmental affairs at Student Veterans of America, which has taken point in helping to craft the GI Bill reforms and discussions around them. “Any one of these provisions can help thousands of veterans.”
Here’s what you need to know about The One GI Bill To Rule Them All.
1. The overview
Officially titled the “Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017” — it’s named for the past American Legion national commander who hand-wrote the original GI Bill in 1944 — the proposal that will soon be considered by members of the House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees is chock-full of reforms to benefit Purple Heart recipients, reservists, veterans’ surviving dependents, and victims of for-profit school closures. Unsurprisingly, Colmery’s Legion helped shape the new reforms and fully supports them. “This bill, as currently written, would launch a new era for all who have honorably served in uniform, and for the nation as a whole,” Charles Schmidt, national commander of the American Legion, told T&P in an emailed statement.
2. A “forever” GI Bill
But the focal point for advocates of the bill is its “forever” provision: If passed, vets who become GI Bill-eligible after Jan. 1, 2018, would no longer have a 15-year “use it or lose it” time limit on their educational benefits. They could enroll in schooling and access their benefits anytime, for life. It’s a reform geared to helping veterans who decide to retool for a second career later in life… or had to put their educations on hold the first time around to raise a family.
3. The name change
The proposal also would permanently change the GI Bill program’s name to just “GI Bill” — no “post-9/11” or other generational distinctions would be made anymore. Advocates say the idea is to make permanent the idea of “one GI Bill for all generations of veterans” — which has a certain Lord of the Rings corniness to it. But it’s also a nod to the idea that these benefits can’t be taken away from future vets down the line.
4. Fixes for Purple Heart recipients and reservists
The new bill guarantees full benefits for all Purple Heart recipients. It shocks a lot of vets to learn that full GI Bill coverage doesn’t currently extend to certain combat-injured service members — particularly reservists who didn’t volunteer for their deployments or who got a non-medical discharge before reaching full benefits eligibility. Advocates say closing this loophole could restore benefits for thousands of Purple Heart recipients, mainly Guardsmen and reservists who served alongside their active-duty colleagues. Additional provisions would restore certain benefits for other qualified reservists, as well.
5. Help for victims of for-profit schools
The bill also restores educational benefits for vets who got screwed when their school programs got shut down. After the Obama administration’s crackdown on shady for-profit schools led to the shuttering of Corinthian and ITT Tech, most students got some kind of restitution — except for vets, whose benefits came through the VA instead of the Department of Education. Under the new provisions, those vets would be able to recover their educational assistance for future use.
6. Helping survivors and dependents
Under current laws, spouses and dependents of a GI Bill veteran who dies can earn benefits of their own under the Fry Scholarship program, but don’t qualify for more robust educational assistance under the Yellow Ribbon program offered on many college campuses. The new bill would extend Yellow Ribbon eligibility to those survivors.
7. Paying for it all
Anyone who can remember back to this spring may recall that a similar GI Bill overhaul went nowhere after questions were raised about how it would offset new spending. That proposal would have been funded by a $100 reduction in monthly basic pay for new beneficiaries — a plan derided as a “GI tax” by critics. “That’s totally off the table, no longer under consideration,” Hubbard tells Task & Purpose.
The biggest proposed savings in the new GI Bill appear to come from a change in housing allowances for student veterans. Those allowances are currently fixed at the generous DoD basic allowance for housing for an E-5 with dependents. Under the new plan, GI Bill vets would receive the same BAH as similarly situated active-duty service members. It’s a subtle shift — “Nobody will see less money,” Hubbard guarantees — but it would realize long-term cost savings by not increasing future housing allowances willy-nilly. Last year, the CBO analyzed a similar plan in a bill tabled by Congress and concluded it would reduce annual federal spending by $3.1 billion.
8. Lots of diverse groups helped put this bill together
Hubbard says that the springtime debate over funding of a new GI Bill ultimately was a positive, shocking many vets’ advocates into action and involvement in the new draft proposal. “That was our way of really getting the conversation going on this,” he says, adding that any realistic legislation needs a funding plan. “To be honest, looking at where we were and where we are now, it really worked.”
Since that dialogue started in May, SVA has hosted numerous GI Bill roundtables and sought input from more than 40 organizations, including vets’ charities and consumer groups, plus government stakeholders. Much of the credit, Hubbard says, goes to a “tiger team” of organizations who were out front with SVA, engaging veterans on reform proposals: The Veterans of Foreign Wars (which had criticized the spring bill’s “GI Tax”), the American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America, Got Your Six, The Military Order of the Purple Heart, and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. “The major difference with this effort is, for this process, we’ve had such a broad community of support,” Hubbard said.
House Veteran Affairs Committee Chairman and Republican Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee plans to introduce the bill today at a press conference with his committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota; Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Roe’s counterpart in the Senate, is expected to file the bill in the upper chamber.
Democrats engaged on veterans affairs, like Sen. Jon Tester of Montana and Rep. Mark Takano of California, also see a lot to like in the bill. Veterans issues, like bringing accountability to VA, have enjoyed more bipartisan support than just about anything else in Congress in recent years — and extending an already-popular program that directly benefits transitioning veterans could be more popular still. Liberals are satisfied that benefits will be fair and broad-based, while conservatives are happy that the plan doesn’t break the federal budget.
“We look forward to these reforms advancing through the committee,” Dan Caldwell, policy director for the fiscally hawkish Concerned Veterans for America told T&P in a statement. He added a thank you to SVA “for working with CVA and other veteran groups to develop a set of reforms that ensure the GI Bill is sustainable in the future and addresses current gaps in the program.”