A veterans group is criticizing a key Senate veterans committee for voting to curb the GI Bill housing allowance.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America on Thursday issued a statement blasting the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee after members approved omnibus legislation that would reduce by 5 percent the Post-9/11 GI Bill housing allowance to pay for other veterans programs.
"As Congress quietly passed another bill cutting veterans education benefits, veterans are stuck having to beg for the benefits we earned," IAVA Chief of Staff Allison Jaslow said in a statement. "We fought hard eight years ago to get the Post-9/11 GI Bill passed and we will not quit fighting until Congress protects the benefits being earned on the battlefield as we speak."
The Senate committee, headed by Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia, during a hastily convened session on Thursday afternoon unanimously voted in favor of the legislation, known as the Veterans First Act.
The circumstances surrounding the vote also drew criticism from IAVA officials.
"In a normal process, they would have published a schedule and said, 'In two or three weeks time, we're having a hearing to mark up this particular bill,'" Jonathan Schleifer, the organization's chief policy officer, said on Friday during a telephone interview with Military.com. "This was done certainly without any notice or warning."
The bill calls for slowing the annual increase to the monthly basic allowance for housing, or BAH, for all recipients of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, including veterans, by 1 percent a year for five years, until 5 percent of the costs are paid for out of pocket -- mirroring the eventual payment for active-duty service members.
Service members'BAH is on track to cover only 95 percent of housing costs by 2018 as a result of language previously included in a separate bill called the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA. The GI Bill payments weren't included in that previous reduction.
In addition, the Senate legislation significantly differs from another proposal recently passed by the House of Representatives that would reduce by half the monthly housing allowance for children attending college on a parent's education benefit.
House lawmakers supported the move to shore up funding for other programs such as improving postnatal care for female veterans, expanded K-9 therapy for veterans suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder, reauthorizing the VA work-study program and removing the cap onVA home loan guarantees.
If the full Senate approves its version of the bill -- a vote could come before Memorial Day -- House and Senate negotiators will convene to iron out differences between the proposals.
Isakson said the Senate legislation would expand a VA program to provide assistance to caregivers, strengthening the Veterans Choice Program and create a pilot program to address the delays and massive backlog in VA’s disability claims appeals process.
But IAVA's Schleifer said the proposal would amount to a $3.4 billion funding reduction to the GI Bill benefit over five years. He said an individual veteran might receive $60 to $90 less per month as a result of the change, he said.
"Student veterans like all students live paycheck to paycheck and don't budget with much room to spare," he said. "Some have tried to paint this as a nominal cut to student veterans, but I think that's unfair to veterans who were promised that benefit and who are now seeing that promise broken by Congress."
Both bills also seek to improve accountability at the Veterans Affairs Department, which has made headlines in recent years for putting veterans seeking appointments on secret wait lists and for failing to discipline employees accused of wrongdoing.
The Senate's would do so in part by easing the process for removing "bad actors at all levels," according to Isakson's release.
"We want to make sure they are putting our veterans first," he said in remarks in the Senate floor, according to the release. "We want to make sure that somebody who makes a mental health call to a veterans hospital doesn’t get a busy signal or a wrong number. We want to make sure that when somebody makes an appointment and then shows up, there is somebody there to meet them for that appointment."