National Guard and reserve troops would see all federal missions and some training days count towards their eligibility for GI Bill benefits under legislation advanced by the House on Wednesday.
The move will still need to be approved by the Senate before it can become law. But the 287-133 vote represents a significant step forward for advocates who have lamented the complex and confusing rules surrounding missions for Guardsmen and reservists, especially in light of their increased deployments in recent years.
“It’s time the Guard and reserve benefits reflect the key work they are doing and the need for equity across the total force,” said House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., in a floor speech shortly before the vote.
“It’s time for every day in uniform to count … Guard and reserve need this more than ever as they are constantly transitioning between military, civilian employment, and family life, facing continuous disruptions.”
The legislation — introduced by Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif. — could affect more than 40,000 Guard and reserve troops annually and has been under consideration for almost two years, dating back to when thousands of part-time troops were mobilized for federal pandemic response efforts.
At the time, advocates questioned whether all of the missions would count towards troops’ eligibility for Veterans Affairs education benefits, given a lack of clarity over how the work was classified.
Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, troops and certain family members can receive 36 months of in-state college tuition, a monthly living stipend and other payouts if they serve at least three full years on active duty.
Only a handful of Guard troops and reservists qualify for that, given their usual lack of time mobilized to active duty. But any service member who serves at least 90 days on qualified military duty is eligible for 50 percent of the full benefit, which still totals thousands of dollars in tuition payments.
But qualified federal orders require a federal emergency declaration by the president, something that doesn’t always happen before troops start their mobilization. As a result, some individuals could work weeks or months without accruing GI Bill eligibility, even while they assume they are.
The new legislation would standardize those rules, making all federal deployments count towards GI Bill eligibility. State missions — such as local disaster response — would still not count towards the federal benefits.
Last summer, the National Guard reached record-high levels of personnel activation, with more than 120,000 service members performing federal missions worldwide. Lawmakers supporting the new legislation argued that those individuals already received a host of other veterans benefits, but could be denied education aid due to quirks in the federal statute.
Earlier this week, White House officials announced their support for the measure. But House Republicans largely opposed it, citing concerns over how to pay for the extra benefits.
The move is expected to cost about $2 billion a year, offset by increases in certain VA home loan fees.
Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill. and ranking member of the veterans committee, said that won’t be enough to cover other long-term costs associated with the change, and that the money should be set aside for other more pressing needs, like covering veterans toxic exposure injuries.
He also noted that the measure massively expands the type of service eligible for GI Bill credit, to include some Guard and reserve training time.
“We can provide for the needs and benefits [of these troops] without burdening future generations,” he said. “But that requires Congress to make tough decisions and put first things first.”
In the end, 68 Republicans sided with all of the House Democrats in advancing the measure. Senate leaders have not announced any timeline for when the measure might be considered in their chamber.
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.