Democratic Reps. Jim Marshall (GA-3) and G.K. Butterfield (NC-1) are promoting a discharge petition (designed to force a vote) to immediately end what’s known as the Disabled Veterans’ Tax, which prevents vets from receiving full disability compensation on top of their retirement pay.  As noted by the Washington Post, current law is that “their federal disability payments [are] offset by dollar-for-dollar reductions in retirement pay.”

In a measure attached the the Defense Authorization Act passed by the House last week, a phase-out of the tax would be accelerated to 2009 (it’s now scheduled to end in 2014), but Reps. Marshall, Butterfield and others would like to see it eliminated now.

While Bush and other GOP Chickenhawks talk about supporting the troops, it’s left to the Democrats to push for legislation that benefits those who’ve put their lives at risk in service to their country.  While there are some Republicans in favor of immediate elimination, the GOP leadership clearly isn’t interested in moving this forward.

More below.
In order to match the accelerated phase-out provision just passed in the House, Harry Reid is preparing an amendment to be introduced in the Senate.  His spokeswoman said that Reid, like Marshall and Butterfield, would like to eliminate the tax/offset right away if at all possible.  The new discharge petition in the House was introduced on May 24 by Rep. Marshall and already has 162 signatories.  The petition would force a vote on H.Res. 270, which in turn calls for consideration of H.R. 303 — legislation currently bottled up in the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel where it will ultimately just die of neglect.  This subcommittee is chaired by Rep. John McHugh, an upstate New York Republican.

(A discharge petition is a special House rule allowing for a majority of the House, 218 Representatives, to force a vote on an issue that is being bottled up in committee or by the leadership. It is the same extraordinary procedure used to force passage of campaign finance reform legislation in the 107th Congress.)

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of accelerating the phase-out from 2014 to 2009 to be roughly $164 million; immediate elimination would likely cost a similar sum.  That’s million with an “M”, folks — mere chump change in the grand scheme of things, and less than what we spend on the war in Iraq in a single day!

According to a press release issued by Butterfield’s office last week, there are currently some 400,000 veterans affected by the Disabled Veterans’ Tax, and 29,000 of them will benefit from the measure passed last week, which “would allow military retirees who served for at least 20 years, and who are rated as both 60 to 90 percent disabled and unemployable, to collect their full VA disability and military retirement benefits at the same time beginning Oct. 1, 2009.” (WaPo)

The Post continues:

In 2003, lawmakers agreed to eliminate the offset over a 10-year period for about 200,000 veterans who have 50 percent or higher VA disability ratings and served for 20 years or more. Last year, Congress decided the most severely injured among that group, those rated 100 percent disabled by the department, should not have to wait. They began collecting full disability and retirement pay in January.

But other veterans who say they have similar medical problems and years of service say that they were left out. They have formal VA disability ratings as low as 60 percent, but VA doctors say their service-related health problems render them unemployable. This group, the target of the new legislation, currently must wait out the 10-year period before collecting full compensation — a delay that will cost each an average of $2,400 in 2010, according to the CBO.

It should be noted that the 2003 legislation was similarly bottled up; a discharge petition during the last Congress to consider the complete elimination of the tax/offset wound up just a bit short with 207 signatures:  202 Democrats, 1 Independent, and only 4 Republicans.  Hmmm . . . I wonder who’s more supportive of the nation’s vets?

While there are some naysayers who point out that those veterans who were not able to complete a full 20 years of service (thus rendering themselves eligible for retirement pay) prior to leaving the military due to their injuries would see no additional benefit as a result of eliminating the tax/offset, those arguments seem rather contrived and unwarranted given the relatively small cost to the government and the opportunity here to help large numbers of veterans.

As Rep. Butterfield points out, “other federal retirees who receive civilian benefits are allowed to keep both their retirement pay and their VA service-connected compensation,” Butterfield said. “This is no way to show respect for the sacrifices veterans have made.”

It seems to me (disclosure: not a veteran) that there’s no reasonable cause for not supporting the immediate elimination of the Disabled Veterans’ Tax; a failure to do so is not only short-sighted in an era where recruitment and — more importantly — retention are becoming bigger problems, but is also downright disrespectful to those who’ve to put themselves in harm’s way.  Let’s show our support with a bit more than just a yellow sticker on an SUV and shame the GOP into providing full benefits for those who’ve paid a heavy price for their service.  Take a look at the discharge petition; if your representative isn’t listed, contact their office and ask her/him to sign on.  It’s the least we can do.

(Cross-posted at Daily Kos)

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