Don’t default on the debt we owe to veterans

It isn’t exactly clear when the first Memorial Day was held, but it was sometime late in the 19th century. General John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Union veterans’ group known as the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a decree that May 30 should be known as Decoration Day, a day for Americans to lay flowers and decorate the graves of those who had died in the Civil War. After America’s entry in World War I it was expanded to include those killed in all wars. 

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 moved Memorial Day from its traditional observance on May 30 (regardless of the day of the week), to a set day—the last Monday in May. The move has not been without controversy, though. Veterans groups, concerned that more Americans associate the holiday with the first long weekend of the summer and not its intended purpose to honor the nation’s war dead, continue to lobby for a return to the May 30 observances. 

Now Memorial Day has an unfortunate time relation with another major event affecting veterans — the deadlock on raising the nation’s debt ceiling. With the announcement this weekend that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Joe Biden had reached an agreement in principal to avoid default, there is reason to hope the crisis will be averted. The agreement would reportedly fully fund medical care for veterans at the levels included in Biden’s proposed 2024 budget blueprint. But members of both parties in Congress, who must vote on the agreement, are unhappy about its broad outlines, and most of the details have not been released. There is reason to worry about what comes next, both in the short term and in the long term.

Before the deal was announced, Republicans in the House came up with a budget-cutting plan they said would have to pass before they voted to avoid a first-ever U.S. debt default. That plan had many victims — one main group being the nations’ veterans.  

House Republicans claimed they would not cut the Veterans Health Administration. By not naming any programs in their bill (other than exempting some from any cuts, including active military programs) they left it as a broad slash against many smaller programs in the federal budget. Yes, they didn’t say they would cut the VHA, but they did say there would be less money. Their fear of public outrage caused them to refuse to say where the cuts came from. The Department of Veterans Affairs wanted to plan for the effects of the Republican bill so it released impact projections. In an effort to hide those effects, House Republicans threatened to investigate the Department of Veterans Affairs for releasing the projections.

There are roughly 361,000 veterans in Wisconsin and slightly less than half are enrolled in the VA health system. The GOP cut to the VHA would mean that 116,600 veterans could lose access to outpatient visits in Wisconsin, leaving them unable to get appointments for care like wellness visits, mental health services, and substance disorder treatment. 

How do you decide what visits should be skipped to balance the GOP cuts? Their 22% cut would result in 30 million fewer outpatient visits for our nation’s veterans all across the country and 81,000 jobs lost across the VHA 

Another part of the GOP plan specifically set requirements for unemployment programs and benefits. The plan required people with disabilities to seek a determination from their health care provider that they are “physically or mentally unfit for employment” in order to qualify for an exemption from burdensome paperwork. About 54% of veterans with Medicaid coverage have a disability. If you cut access and appointments with the VA, how are these veterans going to be able to meet this requirement? There seems to have been little concern about this issue on the part of the GOP House members.

In 1924 Congress passed a bill to pay a “bonus” to those who had served in the Great War but deferred the payment until 1945 because of wrangling over the federal budget. The vets had dubbed the delayed payment the Tombstone Bonus, for the only way to get the cash before 1945 was to die, in which case the payment would be made to the next of kin as a death benefit. In 1932 an estimated 17,000 World War I veterans and their families headed to Washington from across the country in what was known as the Bonus Army, to lobby Congress for immediate payment of their bonus 

History is repeating itself as we see the GOP putting promised veterans benefits at risk again in federal budget wrangling.

There is a social contract between our nation and its soldiers. The Bonus Army pushed for the government to make good on this implicit contract, and the U.S. officially recognized it with the GI Bill in 1944. That obligation has been reestablished many times. The debt the nation owes to veterans endures, for veterans of war and peace, into the 21st century. 

Let’s not let the political wrangling and grandstanding over the debt limit be the action that breaks that contract this Memorial Day. 



originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F05%2F29%2Fdont-default-on-the-debt-we-owe-to-veterans%2F by David Boetcher

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