Military & Veterans

What the GI’s Deserve

Jume 29, 2008
Washington Post Editorial

Virginia’s Sen. Webb secures an updated college benefits plan for veterans.

Political promises are easy to make, harder to keep. So it is a testament to the tenacity of Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) and the justice of his cause that Congress has enacted a new GI Bill for war veterans. The freshman senator’s ability to work across party lines means that the men and women who risk their lives for America’s well-being will, in return, get expanded education benefits, along with opportunities for better futures.

The expansion of education benefits for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans is part of the $257.5 billion emergency spending bill that passed the Senate on Thursday. The House gave its approval earlier, and President Bush is expected to sign it this week. The timing is fitting, considering that 64 years ago last Sunday, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the original GI Bill, which made a college education affordable for millions of World War II veterans. Today’s warriors are equally deserving, but the system, designed for a peacetime military, has not kept pace with the costs of college. Mr. Webb’s bill — The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act — is true to the original in providing full tuition, housing and living costs.

The price tag of the program is not cheap — an estimated $62 billion over 10 years. While Mr. Webb is right that taking care of veterans must be considered a cost of war, it’s irresponsible that Congress and the White House refused to come up with money to pay for it. To get Republican support for the measure, House leaders agreed to drop what would have been a perfectly reasonable tax on affluent Americans. So the country is left with yet another unfunded entitlement program. A modification of the bill to allow some educational benefits to be transferred to immediate family members was a sensible solution to administration concerns about the bill’s impact on service retention, but it, too, added to the unfunded costs.

The measure was a mere glint in the eye when Mr. Webb introduced it on his first day in office 18 months ago. It wasn’t given much of a chance of advancing. Enlisting Republicans and fellow veterans such as Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.) was important. In the end, Mr. Webb had lined up 58 co-sponsors in the Senate and 302 in the House. Also key was gaining the solid support of all the major veterans groups. No doubt Mr. Webb’s background as former Navy secretary helped in dealing with Pentagon concerns. But what served him best was his justifiable outrage at how a generation of veterans was being shortchanged.