WASHINGTON — The government isn’t headed for another shutdown this summer, but advocates want action now to make sure military families aren’t hurt the next time a budget impasse arises.
In advance of work later this week on the fiscal 2019 defense appropriations bill, supporters are again pushing a measure to ensure death gratuity payouts are sent to the families of fallen troops even during a government shutdown.
The issue briefly drew headlines during the three-day shutdown earlier this year, when the families of two U.S. soldiers killed in a helicopter crash had to wait several days for the emergency funding to arrive because Pentagon officials weren’t allowed to process them while lawmakers squabbled over re-opening federal operations.
But since Congress and the White House reached a two-year budget deal days after that shutdown, the issue has largely gone ignored.
“There isn’t any pain right now,” said Keith Humphrey, whose son-in-law was killed in 2009 while serving in the Marine Corps. “There isn’t any crying. So there isn’t any need to deal with this.”
Humphrey has campaigned for a permanent solution to the death gratuity problem for the last four years, since budget fights on Capitol Hill prompted a 16-day federal shutdown. During that lapse in operations, lawmakers were forced to rush legislation allowing the death benefits to be distributed after several grieving families detailed challenges with the delayed payments.
Since then, several lawmakers have floated a permanent solution to the issue, but none have been able to advance far in Congress.
Humphrey, who has been traveling from Kansas to Capitol Hill semi-annually, said current legislation to fix the issue sponsored by Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., has 198 co-sponsors, and a companion Senate measure from Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., has 17 more.
A group of nearly 20 major veterans organizations — including AMVETS, Iraq And Afghanistan Veterans of America and Wounded Warrior Project — have voiced support for the measures.
But neither has seen significant progress in recent weeks, even with the annual defense budget measures moving ahead in the appropriations committees.
“This isn’t an ideological thing,” Humphrey said. “It’s not even a fight. I think most lawmakers and staff just don’t even know this is still a problem.”
Humphrey, a Navy veteran, said the $100,000 death gratuity paid after his son-in-law’s death was a tremendous help to the family, ensuring that burial and other immediate costs would not become a burden. He insists that waiting even a few days because of political fighting adds unneeded stress to an already awful situation.
“We’re talking about covering the costs of feeding your family and burying your kid,” he said.
Lawmakers have expressed reluctance to ease the impact of government shutdowns by exempting too many programs and federal operations, arguing that such moves could discourage their colleagues from seeing shutdowns as a threat.
But Congress has approved advanced appropriations for Veterans Affairs operations for the last five years to ensure that budget fights at the end of the fiscal year do not disrupt patient care at department medical centers. And short-term bills exempting military paychecks from shutdown restrictions have also been approved, to ensure servicemembers don’t face financial worries.
Advocates say the death gratuity exemption has a much smaller impact on the overall government than those measures, but potentially an even larger benefit to the grieving families.
Lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee’s defense panel are expected to unveil their initial draft of the fiscal 2019 defense budget bill on Thursday. Supporters are hopeful that Connolly’s bill can be included as an amendment to that process, either in the committee’s work or during the full chamber debate later this summer.
Meanwhile, Congress will have to approve either a full-year budget for fiscal 2019 or a short-term budget extension by Oct. 1 to avoid another government shutdown. White House officials have already hinted those negotiations could be problematic if lawmakers don’t include some of President Donald Trump’s defense and border security priorities in their work.
“So we might need to deal with this again in the fall,” Humphrey said. “And some family out there isn’t going to know how much they need this fixed until something terrible happens.
“It doesn’t make any sense to wait.”
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.