For a chief executive preparing to leave town on a 17-day summer vacation after suffering a humiliating setback on health care reform, President Trump will be able to claim some bragging rights when he signs a newly approved package of expanded GI educational benefits as early as this week.
The new GI Bill, which cleared the Senate on Wednesday and was sent to the White House for Trump’s signature, will make sweeping changes to the educational benefits of military veterans that were granted in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
What’s more, while the legislation that originated in the House is touted to add $3 billion of additional benefits to the GI program over the coming decade, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded that the legislation would not add to the deficit because of relatively modest reduction in the monthly living stipends for college tuition recipients.
In short, it is both a policy and budgetary win for Trump and the House and Senate Republican and Democratic members who fashioned the legislation in recent months. The House approved the measure in mid-July, and the Senate approved it by unanimous consent on Wednesday before sending it on to the White House for Trump’s expected signature.
Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, one of 40 veterans’ groups that pressed for passage of the legislation, said on Thursday, “I think they [Trump and his advisers] definitely are going to take a victory lap on this,” although Trump had almost no direct involvement with the negotiations.
“Politicians of all backgrounds are way too quick to give themselves credit,” Rieckhoff said in an interview. “Veterans groups have been working on this since 1944, and we always believed that if the veterans lead, the politicians will follow. So really, all Trump has got to do now is sign the bill.”
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said, “This bill invests in the proven success of our veterans,” Isakson said in a statement. “When our veterans return home, they should have every opportunity available to them to pursue their desired profession and career. This is a great victory for our veterans and their futures.”
Trump hasn’t commented directly on the new legislation. But on Thursday he announced two other innovations at the Department of Veterans Affairs designed to improve health care treatment for veterans, particularly those living in rural areas.
One was the launching of a mobile app that will allow VA patients to use their smart phones to schedule and change their appointments at VA health centers. The other will expand the use of teleconferences between VA doctors and patients for 50 different specialties.
“We’re working tirelessly to keep our promises to our great veterans,” Trump said during a White House ceremony with VA Secretary David Shulkin at his side. “Very important, in my campaign and on the campaign trail, the veterans mean so much to me and this administration.”
Trump noted that during the past six months, he already had signed an historic VA “accountability” bill to make it easier to fire low-performing employees and officials, and another to extend and improve the “Veterans’ Choice” program to grant veterans the option of seeking medical treatment outside of the VA health system.
Arguably the biggest change in the new GI Bill will be the lifting of a 15-year limit on the use of benefits – a rule that has denied government funding for tuition and room and board to many veterans and their families who waited too long to take advantage. That change will apply only to service members who enlist after the expanded GI Bill takes effect, which is expected to be Jan. 1, 2018.
Advocates say that provision alone will directly benefit more than 500,000 veterans in the next 15 years and will give veterans far more flexibility to enroll later in life, depending on their family and employment circumstances.
The new legislation would also expand tuition assistance and other benefits for Purple Heart recipients, regardless of their length of service; extend benefits it to certain National Guard and Reservists who deploy on active duty or are mobilized in response to a major disaster or crisis, and to the families of soldiers who die in the line of duty.
The GI program -- first launched after World War II and subsequently updated after 9/11 -- has long been praised by veterans’ organization and Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill despite concern about its overall cost and widespread examples of millions of dollars of improper payments and waste.
Under the GI program, former members of the military can receive full tuition and fees at publicly supported colleges and universities and up to $22,805 a year in tuition at a private or overseas college. What’s more, veterans can qualify for monthly housing allowance, up to $1,000 a year for books and supplies, and even a relocation allowance. The program also permits veterans to transfer unused benefits to a spouse or child.
The program is not cheap. The Department of Veterans Affairs spent more than $11 billion on education benefits for 790,500 veterans and their families in fiscal 2015 alone. By some estimates, total government spending on the Post-9/11 GI Bill is likely to exceed $100 billion over the coming decade.
The CBO strengthened the hand of House and Senate sponsors with a recent analysis showing that the bill would reduce “net direct spending” by $222 million between 2018 and 2027 primarily through changes in the housing allowance.
As a result, the government’s savings in stipends will grow from $50 million next year to $460 million in 2027, or a total of $3.45 billion over 10 years.