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Vets’ Commission Chair gets OK to Study Social Security Benefits

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It's called the Vets' Commission. The full name is the Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission (VDBC). Chaired by Retired U.S. Army Lt. General Terry Scott, the VDBC is chartered to determine "whether a veteran's disability or death should be compensated" and at what level, if any.

To many veterans, the VDBC's central theme is plainly amoral. Who would dare ask if a "veteran's disability or death should be compensated?" Many vets believe the VDBC was formed for the sole purpose of finding ways to cut their benefits.

Gen. Scott has done nothing to dispel that perception. Scott is pushing the VDBC to not only study veterans' compensation from the Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) but is actively lobbying other VDBC members to study veterans who receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) even though the two forms of compensation have nothing to do with each other.

To accomplish his goal, Gen. Scott needed clarification of the VDBC's charter because it does not mention Social Security benefits. Scott wrote four Congressional Committees asking them to, unconstitutionally, interpret the law that established the VDBC. (I wrote about this last week. Article here: )

Unbelievably, Gen. Scott not only got answers from four key lawmakers on Capitol Hill, but they give him the go-ahead to study any federal benefits that veterans might receive.

From a letter to Gen. Scott signed jointly by Rep. Steve Buyer (R-IN), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs and Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs: "It is our opinion that you are not limited to evaluating only those benefits created for veterans, and a review of the mandate does not restrict your examination to title 10 or title 38...We would find helpful a thorough review of benefits provided in their totality. To look at the benefits provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense (DoD) to the exclusion of others will not provide Congress with a complete understanding of the benefits that are provided to veterans and their survivors."

And, in a letter to Gen. Scott signed jointly by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services and Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO), Ranking Member of the same Committee: "It is our view that a comprehensive review under the laws of the United States would inescapably include an examination of the Social Security Disability Insurance program and that the Commission would be remiss in its responsibilities if it were to choose to ignore any form of Federal compensation provided to such veterans."

The tacit approval of four Members of Congress gives Gen. Scott incredible leeway. The VDBC, given the above approvals, can study any benefits that veterans receive. The VDBC's charter, however, states that the Commission can only study benefits provided for disability or death "attributable to military service." Who has the correct interpretation?

There is disagreement in Congress concerning Gen. Scott's plan. Rep. Lane Evans (D-IL), Ranking Democratic Member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, is adamantly opposed. In a letter to Gen. Scott, Evans wrote: a question as to the legislative intent of enacted laws is not the responsibility of Congress or congressional committees. If questions arise as to the legislative intent of an enacted statute, the Commission should seek a formal legal opinion from the Department of Justice"If the Commission believes that further clarification is needed, the Commission could seek a Declaratory Judgment from a court with proper jurisdiction."

Then, Rep. Evans raises another legal point. He continues: I urge you to respect the privacy of veterans when considering matching any data that would require the use of Social Security numbers. The suggestion raised in the Commission's e-mail that 'an analysis could compare veterans' SC [service-connected] disability codes to their SSA [Social Security Administration] impairment codes' raises serious questions as to the Commission's legal authority to obtain and use such data without the informed consent of the individual veterans. There are strict statutory limits on the ability of the Department of Veterans Affairs to obtain and use data from the Social Security Administration."

Rep. Evans then adds this warning to Gen. Scott: "I also note that service-connected compensation benefits paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs are intended to compensate veterans for disabilities incurred or aggravated by military service. Social Security disability benefits are intended to compensate insured workers who have contributed to the Social Security program by payment of taxes on their earnings. These programs serve different purposes and have different eligibility criteria which could result in any proposed comparison turning into one of the proverbial 'apples to oranges.'"

At the forefront of the opposition to Gen. Scott's proposed study is the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), one of the country's most respected veterans' service organizations which has a membership of over 1.3 million disabled vets. The DAV has provided Gen. Scott with legal opinions opposing his intention to study SSDI. (See previous article.)

And, in a letter to Gen. Scott dated today (May 2, 2006), the DAV's General Counsel, Christopher J. Clay, provides a legal summation that should, in theory, put the issue to rest. Clay writes: "The plain language of the statute creating the Commission supports the view that it is empowered to consider benefits payable under Title 38, United States Code. The statute specifies more than once that the Commission's role is to study benefits provided for disability or death 'attributable to military service.' Given that SSDI is paid without regard to causation and to veterans and non-veterans alike, it is quite a stretch to include it within the Commission's purview. The implication of this is self-evident. The Commission can limit itself to studying Title 38 benefits without much fear of challenge, while a foray into SSDI invites collateral controversy."

Clay continues: "Should the Commission seek to include SSDI as a topic of investigation"its enabling legislation does not provide a bulletproof basis on which to do so and that additional authority is needed. Frankly, I am not certain what that authority would be. I am certain that it is not post-enactment guidance from the United States Congress or some committee thereof. The United States Supreme Court has confirmed that such 'authority' has no value."

Then Clay sets forward a scenario that could tie up the VDBC for years. Clay writes: "I suppose that some might consider looking for the additional authority in the form of a declaratory judgment, but it is unclear to me who the parties to that litigation would be, unless disagreeing Commissioners wanted to start suing each other. Conversely, if the Commission simply chose to expand its focus to include SSDI, it would almost certainly invite a declaratory judgment lawsuit from a disabled veteran, a veterans' organization or both"The Commission has two choices. The first is to limit its investigation to Title 38 benefits, thereby embracing a clear and unassailable interpretation of its enabling legislation. The second is to expand its investigation to include SSDI, thereby almost guaranteeing collateral litigation..."

Where does this leave us? Gen. Scott, with his new-found "authority" from four Members of Congress, could tell the VDBC they are studying SSDI benefits for veterans. In theory, this should be voted on by the 13 Commission members. Which presents another problem. Many feel the VDBC is a politically-stacked deck with nine members being appointed by Republicans, including the President, and only four members being appointed by Democratic legislators. There is an overwhelming feeling in the veterans' community that the Commission majority is intent on finding ways to cut vets' benefits.

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Larry Scott served four years in the U.S. Army with overseas tours as a Broadcast Journalist in Korea and the Azores and a stateside tour as a Broadcast Journalism Instructor at the Defense Information School (DINFOS). He was awarded DOD's First Place Thomas Jefferson Award for (more...)
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