A trio of Democratic senators are pushing to overhaul transferability rules with the current GI Bill benefits program in response to a pending Defense Department policy to limit troops’ ability to share those education payouts with their spouses and children.
Sens. Jon Tester of Montana, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut introduced legislation this week which would guarantee that that all service members with 10 years of service are eligible to transfer their benefits to dependents at any time, either before or after they leave the military.
“The law should make it easier, not harder, for service members to use the benefits they’ve earned in a way that makes the most sense for them and their families,” Tester said in a statement, adding that the new plan would get rid of “unnecessary hurdles” in the current program.
It’s unclear how many families could benefit from the change. More than 773,000 individuals have used Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits since the program began in 2009.
GI Bill Currently, troops must register all eligible dependents in Defense Department systems before separating from the military in order for them to be able to receive Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits in the future.
That means the children born after individuals retire from the service are not eligible for the education payouts, which include 36 months of full in-state tuition and monthly living stipends. Same for the spouses of veterans who get remarried after leaving the ranks.
Last year, military officials announced plans to refine the Post-9/11 GI Bill program even further, in the interest of maintaining it as retention benefit. They would shift the deadline for registering dependents up even earlier, blocking troops with more than 16 years of service from adding any new names to their accounts.
Advocates argued that change amounted to punishing troops for having long, productive military careers.
House Democrats in June included language in their chamber’s draft of the annual defense authorization bill to block the change, which was set to go into effect last July. That measure is still pending before Congress.
However, on the eve of that deadline, Defense Department leaders announced they planned to delay the controversial change until January 2020.
The three senators backing the new legislation say they want the issue settled once and for all, and believe that the military’s approach to the benefit is flawed.
“The Department of Defense’s confusing new policy moved the goalpost for transfer eligibility, breaking our promise to military families,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “Disqualifying service members with more than 16 years of military services penalizes the men and women who have served this country in uniform for the greatest length of time.
“This policy change is fundamentally illogical and unfair.”
The legislation would be retroactive to 2001, meaning that thousands of veterans’ dependents who were previously ineligible could take advantage of the program if the measure becomes law (provided the veteran has not already exhausted all available benefits).
No potential price tag for the Senate legislation has been released.
A joint House and Senate conference committee is currently negotiating the final draft of the defense authorization bill, to include whether the GI Bill policy repeal will be included. That work is expected to finish in coming weeks, with full chamber votes on the compromise measure sometime this fall.
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.