It may have been a calculated applause line when President Barack Obama categorically pledged at the American Legion's annual meeting this week in Minneapolis that cuts to veterans programs would be off limits in budget negotiations. But telling an influential constituency what it wants to hear is not a serious policy discussion. In times of economic crisis, the nation needs intellectually honest leadership from the president, not political pandering. This is the kind of blind promise that got the nation into this fiscal mess, and nothing should be off the table — including veterans benefits, Social Security and Medicare — in the discussion about reducing the federal deficit.
The unemployment rate of 13.3 percent for veterans who joined the military after Sept. 11 is more than 3 percentage points higher than the national average. Obama is right to push for tax credits to encourage and reward companies that hire veterans who have served their country. But in tackling reductions in the federal budget, every nook and cranny of government spending needs to be examined to determine if the programs are efficient, necessary and sustainable, including veterans programs.
Favoring one sacred cow of the government bureaucracy at the expense of less-influential agencies contributed to the ballooning federal budget in the first place. Veterans budgets should shoulder the same burden of accountability as any other government agency, from defense to entitlement programs.
A small but telling example: As the St. Petersburg Times' William R. Levesque recently reported, two former directors of Tampa Bay's Haley and Bay Pines VA medical centers received a combined $65,000 in retention bonuses even though neither official asked for the money. Nor did the generous payments delay their scheduled retirements. Would Obama leave these sorts of retention bonuses "off the table"?
This is not an argument to balance the federal budget on the backs of military veterans. But reducing the budget deficit is going to require sacrifices from all Americans, and veterans above anyone else know about shared sacrifice for the sake of the country. Just as Republicans should silence all talk about not raising revenue, Democrats such as the president should not issue ultimatums against making any changes to veterans benefits, Social Security or Medicare.
In the presidential election cycle it is understandable, though hardly justified, that Obama would attempt to curry favor with the nation's largest veterans group by any rhetorical means necessary. The president's claim that he would keep veterans programs off the budgetary table was met with only polite applause. The veterans have been around enough to recognize an unrealistic campaign promise when they hear one.