The Senate on Monday rushed through emergency legislation to help tens of thousands of student veterans whose GI Bill benefits could be disrupted in coming weeks, but the fate of the measure in the House remains unclear.
In late work Monday evening, the upper chamber of Congress approved plans from Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and ranking member Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., that would ensure VA education benefits are not disrupted by college’s plans to shift to remote learning options.
In the last few weeks, as the coronavirus has spread throughout the world, dozens of U.S. colleges and universities have announced plans to keep students at home for the remainder of the spring semester with online-only classes.
Health experts have praised the move as a way to help curb the spread of the virus, which has already claimed more than 7,000 lives worldwide. Earlier on Monday, President Donald Trump recommended that Americans avoid gatherings of more than 10 people for the next two weeks.
But veterans advocates have warned that without a change in federal law, student veterans could see severe financial consequences.
Under existing rules for the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit — which most veterans currently use for their post-secondary education — student veterans in online college classes receive only half the housing allowance of their on-campus peers. That difference can total several hundred dollars a month, depending where the students are located.
With the sudden change in college classes, some veterans housing benefits would drop severely in coming weeks, while others could be zeroed out because colleges are not following requirements laid out at the start of the year.
In a letter to lawmakers last week a coalition of more than 70 veterans groups warned the emergency situation requires immediate congressional action.
“Military-connected students cannot help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by staying home if they lose those homes due to disrupted benefits,” they warned.
On Monday, the Senate agreed. Moran’s measure, which would update language giving the VA Secretary authority to continue GI Bill payments uninterrupted in the event of national emergencies, passed without objection in a voice vote.
“This is a great first step,” Moran said in a statement. “We must make certain veterans can still receive the benefits they’ve earned despite concerns surrounding coronavirus and have the opportunity to earn a college degree and achieve success after service.”
Now the measure shifts to the House, which has already left town for recess and has an uncertain return date. In a conference call with members on Monday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said votes scheduled for March 23 have been postponed.
Lawmakers could try to move the measure through other means such as a unanimous consent decree. Officials did not immediately respond to questions about whether leadership would take that action.
Key House leaders — including House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., and ranking member Phil Roe, R-Tenn. — have publicly backed the bill.
On Tuesday, Roe released a statement calling for quick action on the issue.
“In a time of so much fear and uncertainty, we must act quickly to assure student veterans and others who rely on the GI Bill to make ends meet that they won’t suffer because of actions their school takes to flatten the curve and stop the spread of the coronavirus," he said. "Hundreds of thousands of veterans, dependents, and spouses are counting on us.”
Advocates have said if House lawmakers wait a week or more to move the legislation, it may be too late. VA officials are already beginning to process GI Bill payments for April and dealing with the legal issues surrounding the school changes.
Nearly one million individuals received some type of education benefits from the VA this school year.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.