Protections for GI Bill education benefits created after many schools moved classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic could be revived in future emergencies under a bill passed by the House on Wednesday.
The bill was among other veterans-related legislation cleared by the House. Lawmakers also approved legislation to streamline the Department of Veterans Affairs home loan appraisal process. The bills must still be passed by the Senate and signed by the president before becoming law.
At the beginning of the pandemic, student veterans were in danger of losing some of their GI Bill benefits as colleges closed campuses and moved classes online. Benefits such as tuition money and housing stipends are normally cut in half for veterans taking online classes compared to those learning in person.
Starting in March 2020, Congress passed a series of laws to ensure veterans would still receive their full benefits, even if classes went virtual. But the COVID-19 protections for the GI Bill expired in June as the country shifted its focus away from the pandemic and after most colleges had resumed normal operations.
The bipartisan bill passed Wednesday would allow the VA to immediately bring back the protections for any future presidentially declared national emergencies without further action by Congress. The bill, dubbed the Student Veteran Emergency Relief Act, was sponsored by Reps. Mike Levin, D-Calif., and Nancy Mace, R-S.C.
"The COVID-19 pandemic exposed many flaws in student veterans' benefits," House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said on the House floor. "While I am relieved we never left student veterans without their benefits, we came close far too many times."
The bill would eliminate "artificial benefits cliffs," Takano added, meaning "the next time there is an emergency -- be it a flood, tornado, another pandemic or another event that forces student veterans to take their classes online for a short period of time -- VA will be able to fully pay out benefits to student veterans who are forced to attend classes remotely."
The House also voted Wednesday on the Improving Access to the VA Home Loan Benefit Act, which would make the VA update its rules on appraisals of homes bought using its home loan benefit.
Lawmakers in both parties have expressed concern that the VA home loan program is leaving veterans at a disadvantage against buyers with commercial loans amid an increasingly competitive housing market, in part because of a lengthy appraisal process. VA officials have said its appraisals can take an average of 14.8 business days to complete, compared to a couple of days for a non-VA loan.
Among the updates required by the bill passed Wednesday, the VA would have to issue guidance on when to allow desktop appraisals, which are done through tax records and other public documents rather than in-person inspections.
The VA would also have to consider whether those desktop appraisals provide for cost savings for the borrower and help in "situations in which a traditional appraisal requirement could cause a delay substantial enough to jeopardize the ability of a borrower to complete a transaction," according to the bill text.
"Every veteran deserves the chance to own a home and pursue the American dream," House Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., the bill's sponsor, said on the floor. "With interest rates on the rise, we should do whatever we can to make the VA home loan benefits the best option for veteran homebuyers and sellers alike."