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Howard P. "Buck" McKeon: Our veterans deserve better

View from Washington, D.C.

Posted: July 31, 2009 6:19 p.m.
Updated: August 1, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
Imagine serving your country overseas in the Armed Forces for months or years, in Afghanistan, Iraq or anywhere around the world, away from family and surrendering yourself to your country for the protection of American freedoms and liberties.

Now imagine completing your term of service and pursuing the higher education that was promised to you under the GI Bill of Rights.

Unfortunately, starting today, as many of our California veterans are expecting tuition payments for the upcoming semester, they may find they're being shortchanged by the system.

Because of a technical snafu in the language of the post-9/11 GI Bill, veterans in California will be adversely impacted and are set to receive less money for schooling than veterans in most other states.

The GI Bill itself was created to guarantee our veterans a free public education or provide private school assistance equivalent to the highest in-state tuition and fee rates.

The issue for our state - ironically - stems from our generosity. Under California law, public institutions of higher education are prohibited from charging tuition to in-state residents.

This is where it gets complicated. The post-9/11 GI Bill calculates a veteran's educational benefits based on the public tuition and fees charged to an in-state resident.

Thus, in California, veterans receive zero dollars in tuition benefit and are often only allowed to use a fraction of their fee allotment at a private institution of higher education.

For example, based on the amount charged by public institutions to in-state residents, the Department of Veterans Affairs has determined the maximum tuition benefit to be $0, while the maximum fee benefit can equal up to $6,586.54.

This means a California veteran attending Stanford University - with an approximate tuition cost of $37,000 and fees of $1,000 - would receive no benefit to defray the cost of tuition and would only be able to access $1,000 in fee benefits to cover that portion of the cost.

California's prohibition on tuition was meant to hold college costs down, not unfairly drive them up for our state's veterans, and that's why I introduced the Veterans Educational Equity Act (H.R. 2474), which would ensure that California veterans receive the full amount of benefit to which they are entitled.

I first introduced the bipartisan legislative adjustment in May with my colleague, Rep. Mike Thompson of California's First Congressional District.

We have fought tirelessly to move the bill to the House floor for a vote, in order to beat the Aug. 1 deadline.

The bill has overwhelming bipartisan support and momentum, with 47 cosponsors from across the state.

Unbelievably, nearly three months have passed, and the Majority's leadership still hasn't moved the bill to the House floor for a vote.

The Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called the fix "a no-brainer," and the Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas, says the current interpretation of the GI Bill "was not the intent of Congress."

It seems everyone is in agreement that there is a problem, and the Veterans Educational Equity Act would be a solution for California veterans.

So why are we left asking, "What's the hold-up?"

As it turns out, Speaker Pelosi insists the cost of this legislative fix be offset under pay-go before she will bring it to the floor for a vote.

I find this outrageous, especially considering the original post-9/11 GI Bill required no offset and this is simply an administrative adjustment to the original bill.

How is it that the Majority can find billions of dollars to bailout banks and restore the automobile industry, but they can't find any money for our nation's deserving veterans?

I won't take no for an answer. I am trying every legislative avenue available to help our California veterans attend school this coming semester as planned.

In fact, earlier this month, I successfully included an amendment during an Education and Labor Committee markup of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (H.R. 3221) to require the Secretary of Education to provide tuition grants to make up for the post-9/11 GI bill's California glitch.

There is hope that one of these two policy moves can improve the situation for our veteran students this fall semester. As of today's deadline, though, it hasn't happened.

As President George Washington once said, "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of early wars were treated and appreciated by our nation."

We - as a nation - made a promise to our country's veterans that they would receive consummate education benefit for their service, and we should stop at nothing to keep that promise.

Congressman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, a Republican, represents the 25th District of California in the U.S. Congress. He is the leading Republican on the House Armed Services Committee and a senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee. His opinion represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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