Future military veterans will no longer have to worry about an expiration date on their education benefits if newly proposed legislation in the House of Representatives makes its way to the president’s desk.
The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Education Assistance Act of 2017 would make several changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, including an expansion of benefits for reservists, Purple Heart recipients, and surviving dependents, as well as the elimination of a requirement that veterans use their education benefits within 15 years of active-duty service.
The removal of the 15-year requirement would only apply to service members who become eligible for the GI Bill after 90 days of active-duty service after January 1, 2018 — not current veterans or service members who are already eligible.
The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs announced the bill Thursday, stressing that months of bipartisan work and countless discussions with veterans went into crafting the legislation.
In his remarks at a public forum, Committee Ranking Member Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said the 15-year cap was "really holding people back" in the "reality of the new world" — a sentiment shared by Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Connecticut, who told the story of a 92-year-old veteran student in her district.
Eliminating the expiration date "is a big deal," Walz said, "and we’re very proud of that."
He said the committee’s goal is to get the bill to President Trump as soon as possible so that it can start helping vets immediately. But first, the bill will go through a legislative hearing on Monday, a committee markup on July 19, and a floor vote sometime before August, according to lawmakers and committee staff. It must also get the Senate’s approval before ending up at the White House, though committee members appeared confident that it would pass.
Other highlights of the legislation include retroactive restoration of benefits for GI Bill users affected by school closures since 2015. This would include thousands of veterans who lost their benefits to the now-defunct for-profit college systems Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech. The bill also provides additional funds for military students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, commonly referred to as STEM fields, a provision of particular interest to House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
"As technology continues to change the landscape of work and education we must keep our policies up to date to provide our veterans the opportunity to obtain necessary skills for the 21st century," he said in a written statement. "The current GI Bill needs to be refreshed so veterans can apply their earned benefits to new technology-based education models."
Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs leaders Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. applauded the legislation in a joint statement, adding that they're working on their own version of a GI Bill overhaul. A staff member for the committee confirmed senators' intent to include the provision that removes the time limit on GI Bill benefits.
The reaction from veteran service organizations meeting with committee members on the Hill Thursday was largely positive.
Got Your Six Government Relations Director Lauren Augustine said that while the organization would have wanted all veterans to benefit from the 15-year cap removal, there wasn't enough money.
"That’s really where compromise comes into play," she said, praising the committee’s bipartisan efforts to create legislation that can pass the House and the Senate even in a sharply-divided Washington, D.C. "This is a benefit looking forward and making sure that we’re taking care of future generations of veterans."
Student Veterans of America had a similar message.
"At the end of the day, you’re always trying to balance the cost with the importance of the policy," said Will Hubbard, the organization’s vice president of government affairs. "I think what we’ve been able to come to a conclusion on is a really strong policy that’s going to help thousands of students and their families."
Veterans of Foreign Wars referred to the legislation in a statement as a "beefed up Post-9/11 GI Bill" that recognizes service members’ sacrifices in the ongoing war.
"There’s a piece of the pie for everybody," Augustine said. "It’s good to see everybody have a win out of this."
Still, some feel the bill doesn’t quite go far enough.
Kristofer Goldsmith, assistant director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America, was happy with the progress the bill represents, but noted that it doesn’t extend to "bad paper" veterans who are not eligible for the GI Bill.
"What we care about most, what we want to still see get done, is we’d like to see every veteran who is kicked out who has PTSD, who has TBI (a traumatic brain injury) who lost their access to the GI Bill gain eligibility," he said. "That’s not in this, but that’s VVA’s next major priority when it comes to the GI Bill."
The committee's efforts to overhaul the Post-9/11 GI Bill in recent months haven't been without controversy.
A draft plan circulated by the committee in April drew fire after it initially proposed paying for the $3 billion cost of upgraded benefits over 10 years by reducing new enlistees' monthly pay by $100 per month. Some veterans' groups sharply criticized that plan as an unfair "tax on troops," noting that Army privates typically earn less than $1,500 per month.
The legislation unveiled by the committee Thursday would be paid for through a slight reduction in housing stipend payments.
Total government spending on the GI bill is expected to be more than $100 billion over 10 years.
"This is a really important day and a day that should be celebrated," committee member Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., said. "Not only have (veterans) given to our country and served our country, but they are also giving to their communities while they’re learning and they are then turning around and fulfilling jobs and enriching their community."
"It’s a twofer," she continued. "It’s a valuable, valuable investment that we’re making – not only in our veterans, but also in our future."
Associated Press contributed to this report