House Votes to Expand GI Bill Eligibility for National Guard, Reserves

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A Louisiana National Guardsman administers a COVID-19 vaccine
A Louisiana National Guardsman assigned to Task Force COVID administers a COVID-19 vaccine at the Mahalia Jackson Center, New Orleans, Jan. 5, 2022. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. David Kirtland)

National Guardsmen and reservists would be eligible for GI Bill benefits in more circumstances under a bill passed by the House on Wednesday.

The House voted 287-135 to approve the National Guard and Reserve GI Bill Parity Act, which would allow any day getting paid and being in uniform on federal orders, including for training, to count toward eligibility for school tuition benefits under the post-9/11 GI Bill. Sixty-eight Republicans joined with Democrats to support the bill.

"Not only are these National Guard and Reserve members risking their lives to serve our country, but they're also forced to put their civilian lives on hold when they're called up, leaving behind their families and interrupting civilian careers," Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., who sponsored Wednesday's bill, said on the House floor. "In some of those settings, they are serving side by side with active-duty members doing similar jobs and facing similar risks, but they're not earning the same GI Bill benefits as their peers. That's unacceptable."

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To be eligible for at least some GI Bill benefits, a service member has to serve for at least 90 days, not including basic training. To get a full scholarship, the time commitment increases to 36 months. Someone discharged for a service-connected injury is eligible for the full benefit if they served at least 30 days.

Right now, not all deployments for the National Guard allow them to accrue GI Bill benefits, nor does the time Guardsmen and reservists spend on active duty for training.

In particular, so-called Title 32 orders for the National Guard do not count toward GI Bill benefits unless they are in support of a presidentially declared national emergency. Title 32 orders are considered federal active-duty orders and are paid for by the federal government, but state governors remain in actual command of their National Guard forces.

So-called Title 10 orders, in which the president commands the Guard and which are typically reserved for overseas deployments, count toward the GI Bill.

The discrepancy in GI Bill eligibility has become particularly pressing for the National Guard in the last couple years as states and the country lean on it to respond to crisis after crisis, including the COVID-19 pandemic; racial justice protests in June 2020; and protecting the U.S. Capitol after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

Guardsmen called up for the COVID-19 pandemic are eligible for GI Bill benefits since that's a formal national emergency, as were those sent to the Capitol because the presidential inauguration during the deployment was designated as a "national special security event," the National Guard Bureau wrote in a letter to Congress last year. But Guardsmen deployed for the protests in summer 2020 were not eligible for GI Bill benefits, the letter added.

While acknowledging the inequality Guardsmen and reservists face in becoming eligible for GI Bill benefits, most Republicans argued the bill passed Wednesday is too broad and so would be too expensive.

"I agree that Congress must take a hard look at duty-status reform and the potential expansion of benefits regarding reservists, but this bill before us today would be an unwise expansion of benefits," Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said during Wednesday's floor debate. "Training has never counted towards eligibility, and members of the Guard and Reserve know that when they sign up."

Expanding the pool of eligible GI Bill beneficiaries could cost $1.9 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office, or CBO. The bill seeks to offset costs by increasing Department of Veterans Affairs home loan fees, but the CBO estimated it could increase deficits by $20 billion over the four decades after 2032 because inactive duty training would count toward eligibility starting that year while the home loan fees expire the year before.

The CBO added that there is a "significant source of uncertainty" about how many Guardsmen and reservists would be newly eligible for the GI Bill, a number that would significantly affect costs.

Republicans offered a competing proposal that would eliminate the stipulation that Title 32 orders have to be in support of a national emergency to be eligible for the GI Bill, but not expand eligibility to training. The GOP proposal would also use home loan fees as an offset.

The Republican proposal was voted on as an amendment Wednesday, but failed 198-225.

The bill approved Wednesday must still be voted on by the Senate before being sent to the president to be signed into law. The White House said in a statement this week it supports the bill.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: How the Pandemic Spurred Congress to Rewrite GI Bill Rules for the National Guard

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