America's fallen soldiers will be honored in traditional ways this Memorial Day — with flags on graves, the playing of taps, a national Moment of Remembrance when we pay respect in our own way — all of which is appropriate and the least we can do. Yet why not use Memorial Day to accomplish something tangible for soldiers and their families, as well? Such an opportunity exists with a new version of the GI Bill pending in Congress.
The bill would expand education benefits for every veteran who had at least three years of active duty since Sept. 11, 2001. Not only would the bill make a college education available to more veterans, but it would increase the tuition payment to be more in line with actual costs. Eligible veterans could collect the equivalent of the highest in-state tuition rate at a public institution, plus a stipend linked to housing costs where they attend school.
In other words, the new provisions would help the military keep its promise of a college education in exchange for service to the country. Veterans have discovered that the money provided under the current GI Bill isn't enough to cover actual costs.
Unfortunately, this deserving bill has gotten ensnared in presidential politics. Although it passed the Senate with 70 votes, President Bush has threatened to veto it. He believes that soldiers will leave the military to take advantage of the generous education benefit, leaving a recruitment shortfall. It's the same reason Sen. John McCain gave for opposing the bill, but there is no evidence to support such fears.
The Congressional Budget Office studied the bill's likely impact on retention and recruitment and found that the Senate bill was, essentially, a wash. While some active duty soldiers would leave to pursue their education, the enhanced benefit would also attract more high-quality recruits.
Congressional Democrats don't have clean hands on this issue, either. They have insisted on connecting the bill to war spending legislation (as well as other unrelated expenditures), which they knew was likely to draw a Bush veto. See, Democrats (including Sen. Barack Obama) are saying, Bush and McCain don't support the troops.
Enough of the political games. Congress should offer a bipartisan GI Bill that can stand on its own, and Bush should sign it into law. If he doesn't, Congress should override his veto. The relatively small segment of our society that has been fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan deserves all the support and benefits they can get — and certainly betterment through education should be near the top of the list.
So on this Memorial Day, after the flags are furled and the bugle notes have faded, let us honor our war heroes by ignoring politics for once and passing the improved GI Bill without delay.