Congress passes benefits package

It’s unusual for Congress to pass a comprehensive bill to help thousands of veterans with a final legislative sprint that leaves veterans’ service organizations wondering what just happened.

But that’s what the Senate and House did last week. After a burst of closed-door compromises, they agreed to and separately passed the Veterans’ Benefits Act of 2010 (HR 3219), sent it on to the president.

The package has no clear blockbuster initiative. But it improves many veterans’ benefits including some allowances for disabled veterans and various veterans’ insurance options. Employment protections are toughened for those returning to civilian jobs.

Service members moving out of phone service areas will be able to sever cell phone contracts without penalty. And new federal grants will be authorized for job training and counseling, childcare services to homeless women veterans and homeless veterans with children.

“I think it’s fantastic and I’m truly incredulous that it went through as fast at it did,” said Tim Tetz, the American Legion’s legislative director.

A week before passage Tetz said he and the Legion’s national commander had visited with Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the veterans’ affairs committee. Knowing Congress would adjourn soon and not return until after the November election, the Legion had urged Akaka to clear an omnibus benefits bill at least during the post-election lame duck session.

Akaka said a bill was being worked. A week later, to Tetz’s surprise, a bill chock full of initiatives had passed both the House and Senate. “It’s quite expansive,” said Tetz. “It will be hard to find a veteran that in some way won’t be touched by it.”

“The package is excellent,” said Joe Violante, legislative director for Disabled American Veterans. “There are new and expanded provisions for disabled veterans that should help them in a lot of different areas.”

“We have about 20 to 25 separate bills in there,” said Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, in a phone interview. “It’s an incredible move forward for all our veterans, whether talking about those on the street or those suffering from mental illness or women veterans facing sexual trauma. I mean it touches virtually every issue that we’ve been working on for several years.”

The House passed an original HR 3219 in July last year with a contentious provision to establish a $1000 a month-payment to former World War II merchant marines regardless of need or disability. Senators and even many vet groups refused to support it, arguing it created a benefit not available to other vets. WWII-era merchant marines, they argued, already have full veteran status and can apply for VA benefits including a needs-based pension for the elderly.

When House negotiators agreed to remove the merchant marine language, the benefit package came together, expanded by a final packet of Senate amendments, many of them bills already passed by the House.