Tighten GI Bill transfer rules, senators say

Congress may tighten rules for troops who want to share Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits with their family members.

Tucked into the Senate version of the annual defense authorization bill is a provision that recommends defense officials review current policy in that area to ensure it "encourages the retention of individuals in the armed forces."

The provision also states that service secretaries should "be more selective in permitting the transferability of unused education benefits" to family members, while stopping short of mandating specific new changes or regulations.

Although the provision merely expresses a nonbinding "sense of Congress," it represents a willingness among some lawmakers to explore changes to the popular Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, particularly when the tuition money isn't being used by veterans themselves.

Under current rules, troops who serve six years and commit to at least four more can transfer their education benefits to a spouse or child to attend college. That covers tuition payments, book stipends and, in many cases, housing costs.

The Veterans Affairs Department says more than 928,000 spouses and dependents used GI Bill funds to attend schools in the first five years that the Post-9/11 version was offered. That added $5.6 billion to the cost of the education benefits.

Earlier this year, the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission recommended limiting transfer eligibility to troops who serve at least 10 years and sign up for at least two more.

They argued that such a move would "better focus transferability on career service members," the original goal of allowing the benefits to be shared.

The commission also recommended dumping housing stipends for spouses and children of active-duty troops, arguing that military families already receive one housing payment from the military.

In May, officials from the Defense Department's military personnel policy office told the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee that they would have to do more research on the potential effects of such changes on retention before they would support those changes.

The Senate language appears aimed at giving them the opportunity to collect that data, with the potential for changes in years to come.

House lawmakers did not include similar language in their draft of the annual authorization bill. The full Senate is expected to take up the legislation in coming weeks, after which a conference committee will work to reconcile differences in the two drafts for the balance of the summer.

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