The House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a bill that would cut, by half, the housing stipend for children of service members going to school with transferred Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.
The reduction, which would not apply to benefits already transferred or transferred within 180 days of the bill becoming law, was included to pay for other aspects of the legislation, according to a spokesman for the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
The bill, passed on a voice vote, includes includes measures on veterans health care, jobs and transition out of the military.
But the sharp reduction in the housing stipend, often one of the most valuable parts of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, has generated some pointed criticism and split military and veterans advocacy groups.
Minnesota Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, speaking on the House floor Tuesday, said that while the bill has "absolutely wonderful programs," paying for those by reducing a benefit that service members have been promised "is an egregious breach of trust."
"Why come to the soldiers first? There's no other place in the federal government we can find this [funding]?" Walz asked.
A House Veterans Affairs Committee spokesman noted that the cuts are less drastic than those recommended by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, which called for a complete elimination of housing stipends for both military spouses and children using the GI Bill.
The spokesman, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak on the record, said that while "a very small handful of Democrats" opposed cutting the stipend to pay for the bill, they didn't offer an alternative funding source, so "we are moving forward with the bill in its current form."
Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans both wrote letters favoring the overall bill, while making little or no reference to the housing stipend cuts.
"This comprehensive, bipartisan legislation contains numerous provisions that expand, improve and streamline veterans' health care and benefits, consistent with many of the VFW's priority goals," VFW National Legislative Service Director Raymond Kelley wrote. The letter added: "We look forward to working with you to ensure the passage of this important legislation."
Some groups disagree.
Michael Little, director of legislative affairs for the Association of the United States Navy, said that it's easier for veterans groups to overlook the stipend cuts, since most of their members would not be affected due to limited grandfathering provisions.
"That isn't the case for AUSN," Little wrote in an email to Military Times. "If Congress passes this bill, I will have to explain [it] to 400,000 sailors in the U.S. Navy, who are going to be blindsided by this attack on their earned benefits."
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America similarly expressed concerns in a letter to Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, asking Miller to "stand with our members in opposing any cuts to, or reduction of benefits in, the Post-9/11 GI Bill now or in the future."
Typically calculated based on the Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH, that active-duty service members would receive if stationed where the school is located, the Post-9/11 GI Bill's housing stipend can be very generous.Depending on a school's tuition costs and an area's cost of living, the housing stipend may be worth as much as it covers in the GI Bill's coverage of university the tuition and fees the benefit covers, sometimes even more.
Veterans advocates have long worried that budget-conscious lawmakers could put the Post-9/11 GI Bill on the chopping block. Even though well-established groups such as the VFW backed the bill without objecting to the stipend cuts, others saw the move as a bad sign.
"Reducing the benefits provided by the GI Bill is a very slippery slope, and eventually there will be nothing left of the GI Bill," AUSN's Little wrote in a letter opposing the measure.
The legislation also seeks sought to restrict the use of the Post-9/11 GI Bill for flight training.
The House Veterans Affairs Committee spokesman said the restriction was intended to crack down on flight schools billing the government hundreds of thousands of dollars per student.
Chris Neiweem, a lobbyist representing an aviation school, said the restriction would not be necessary with proper cost control measures from the Veterans Affairs Department and called the change "a fairly significant rollback of the GI Bill."
The committee spokesman called that statement "completely ludicrous" and referenced a previous quote by committee Chairman Miller: "The GI Bill flight school loophole is so big you could fly a 747 through it."
The bill now moves to the Senate, where it would need to pass and then be signed by the president to become law.