A diatribe from committee chairman Steve Buyer (R-IN) ensued, predicting doom and despair for veterans should voters cast out a supposedly vet-loving Republican majority come November 8 and install in its place that alleged Democratic hater of troops, Nancy Pelosi, as majority leader.
Within a day of my inquiring how the official, nonpartisan website for a standing House committee could be used to present such a nakedly partisan, political message, the item vanished from the committee's internet presence, and the associated article was scrubbed from view (but not from "The Google," or from the PDF file preserved on my own hard drive).
Aside from the fact that using government resources for political messages is illegal, and the notion that a Republican majority can be counted on to provide more oversight of President Bush's veterans policy (or any other of his policies) is laughable on its face, there's a bigger problem with the fear-mongering headline that sat since October 20 atop the website of the house committee charged with protecting our veterans:
It's a lie.
The simple fact is that Pelosi's legislative record on supporting veterans health care, education and other benefits is among the best in the House, while Buyer's ranges from mediocre to atrocious, depending on who's doing the rating. This is not a subjective judgment, but is based on two separate analyses of voting records by distinctly different veterans organizations - the venerable Disabled Veterans of America, and the upstart Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. (Check the ratings yourself here and here.)
It's the current Republican leadership in Congress and the White House that own the worst record for supporting veterans legislation - a surprising reality utterly at odds with their support-the-troops rhetoric. Some of the loudest proponents of the war - embattled Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio comes to mind - have some of the poorest records for supporting veterans (overall, Senate Republicans had a "D" average from the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans' group), while the most prominent war critics and political liberals - Ted Kennedy, for one- have been the strongest supporters of vets' legislation (the Senate Democrats had a B+ average).
These votes touch almost every aspect of veterans' lives: The will of the majority has been to cut funds for brain injury research (more than 3,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered severe brain trauma); to use phony prewar statistics to calculate an unrealistically low but politically palatable cost estimate for veterans health care (causing a $3 billion budget shortfall now coming due); and to rebuff Democratic attempts to correct inequities in the G.I. Bill that cheat National Guard and reserve troops (who have contributed half the fighting force in Iraq and Afghanistan) out of college aid.
Oddly, this substantive measure of support for the troops has gotten almost no media play this election season - nothing compared to the absurd brouhaha over John Kerry's recently botched punch line about the poorly educated being stranded in Iraq (context makes it clear Senator Foot-in-Mouth intended a jab at our C-student president's failed war, not the troops bravely fighting it). This curious inattention from major news media persisted even when 400 wounded and disabled veterans came to Congress and booed Buyer and other Republican committee members during the hearings in which the deliberate $3-billion shortfall was engineered. Buyer's dismissive, insulting response: "Where the river is the shallowest, it makes the most noise." This was the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee speaking about the concerns and anger of wounded combat veterans - as quoted in, of all places, Stars and Stripes. Buyer followed up with a move to ban testimony of the service organizations at future hearings.
This unapologetic, shoot-the-messenger behavior is in stark contrast to the gold-standard for veterans legislation set in 1944 with the original G.I. Bill of Rights, crafted in the midst of a cataclysmic war by Franklin Roosevelt, a bipartisan Congress, and the American Legion -- the granddaddy of veterans service organizations, whose representatives not only testified, but actually wrote the first draft of one of the greatest legislative accomplishments in history. Consider these two contrasting images to see how far we've sunk since then:
After World War II, millions of veterans lined up for hours for a remarkable purpose: to register for free college educations, to buy homes with no money down and mortgages cheaper than rent, to sign up for vocational training and job counseling, and to apply for business and farm loans -- all courtesy of Uncle Sam and the original G.I. Bill.
In the wake of the Iraq war and occupation, a different sort of line came be found at military bases nationwide: bread lines. Thousands of military families have been left so impoverished they must queue up for donations of surplus cheese, day-old bread and damaged boxes of frozen food. This is especially true for bases in areas with high costs of living, such as the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton near San Diego, where food lines have become a weekly fixture.
When our warriors come home from Iraq, all too many find empty bank accounts, maxed-out credit cards and the realization that the college benefits used to entice enlistees often don't cover the costs of a 4-year degree, nor support their families while they're in class. And they actually have to have a payroll deduction in order to even qualify for those benefits. Still others, wounded in a war costing the country $10 million an hour, learn that their president and Congress have cut programs to heal their injuries, post-combat stress, and economic distress. Some vets wait six months for medical care. There are an estimated 200,000 homeless veterans from all eras on the streets at the moment; at least six hundred of them are known to have served in the current war in Iraq.
This is the shameful record that the House Veterans Affairs committee website warned must be preserved at all costs in the upcoming election.
Pelosi would not comment on the now-vanished jab at her on the veterans committee website. However, she took her own shot at the "moral priorities" of the "Republican Rubber Stamp Congress" she hopes to unseat in the midterm elect ions: "On the battlefield, our troops pledge to leave no soldier behind. Here at home, we must leave no veteran behind."
Unfortunately, this is not merely a story of shortchanged veterans and hypocritical congressmen who support war but not warriors. That's just an awful symptom of a bigger problem: a wholesale failure to invest in America's future. Just imagine how a politician today would be mocked if he proposed offering an entire generation free college (with stipends), subsidized mortgages, job training and medical care. Yet today's unthinkable was yesterday's matter of course. There was no hesitation, no griping about government being the problem, not the solution. This bit of modern conventional wisdom -- the animating principal of the government haters now in charge of our government -- would have seemed like crazy talk back then to most Americans. And when FDR signed the G.I. Bill on behalf of 16 million veterans -1 out of 8 Americans at the time - he ended up powering far more than a return to the status quo. The G.I. Bill transformed the nation and the American Dream, opening up the colleges (formerly elite bastions), raising suburbs out of bean fields (a nation of renters became a nation of homeowners), growing the middle class (from 1 in 10 before the war to 1 in 3 a decade after), and providing the medical, engineering and scientific prowess to conquer dread diseases, usher in the information age, and win the Cold War. It was what every social welfare program must aspire to be if it is to succeed: a hand-up, not a hand-out.
Such luminaries as Bob Dole, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, William Rehnquist, Warren Christopher, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, and George McGovern, among many others, got their starts through the G.I. Bill, as did 14 Nobel Prize winners, two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 450,000 engineers and a million assorted lawyers, nurses, businessmen, artists, actors, writers and pilots. This was a wise investment in every sense: A 1988 congressional study found that every dollar spent on education under the bill returned $7 through increased productivity, consumer spending and tax revenue. Unlike the $505 billion and counting being flushed down the Iraq drain, the G.I. Bill left us safer, stronger, more united, and more prosperous. That's called investing in the future -- not for the next quarter, but the next quarter century.
We need that sort of an investment today, a new G.I. Bill for all Americans -- not only for those in the military, but those young men and women who might choose other forms of service. Had FDR lived to serve out a last term in peacetime, America would have had such a program of national service. What heights could we have lifted our young people with the half trillion dollars flushed so far down the Iraq drain - and the even larger sum that staying the course will undoubtedly cost in the future. Instead, the American Dream so generously nurtured through the G.I. Bill after World War II is now under siege, from the cost of college to the cost of homeownership to the shrinking middle class to the declining numbers of advanced engineering and science degrees our young people earn.
Now we have the unbearable sight of bread lines for the families of our brave military men and women, inadequate budgets to care for wounded veterans, G.I. Bill college benefits that disappear in a haze of Pentagon fine print - and of congressmen and a president who point fingers everywhere but the mirror.