Published on Wednesday, July 9, 2003 by Knight-Ridder
Support the Troops?
GOP Blocking Abolishment of Disabled Veterans Tax
by Joseph L. Galloway
WASHINGTON - Its formal title is The Retired Pay Restoration Act of 2003. Veterans say it is a long overdue measure to end what they have nicknamed The Disabled Veterans Tax. By either name it is a hot-button issue for 670,000 disabled American military veterans.
What the bill would do is redress a century-old injustice - a law that says anyone who retires after a full career of military service and draws retirement pay will have that pay reduced, dollar for dollar, for any payment received from the Veterans Administration for permanent service-connected disability.
In other words, if a military retiree is judged 100 percent disabled as a consequence of old war wounds or Agent Orange or bone damage from jumping out of airplanes, he would draw a maximum disability payment of $2,300 per month. His retired pay would disappear entirely, under the law.
Curiously, if a former soldier served only a two or four-year tour and was later judged disabled he would draw full disability payments with no reduction for any other payments he might receive from Social Security or a government or private retirement plan.
It is those who served honorably for at least 20 years and sometimes more than 30 years who are subject to the Disabled Veterans Tax.
The long-promised relief is hung up in Congress this summer and looks like it may well die in committee. It is estimated by the Congressional Budget Office that redressing the retirees' grievance would cost the Treasury between $3 billion and $5 billion a year - and the Bush administration has turned thumbs down because they see it as a budget-buster.
It is a cruel fate, given the fact that 82 percent of the members of the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats alike, have signed as co-sponsors of the act and have voiced strong support for its passage.
The House bill boasts 345 named co-sponsors, 170 of them Republicans. But when Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., - whose district includes the Columbus-Fort Benning area with thousands of military retirees - initiated a Discharge Petition to bring the bill to the House floor for a vote, only one of the 170 Republican co-sponsors was willing to sign the petition.
The other 169 Republicans are missing in action, and the veterans say they know why. "Republican representatives are being forced to represent the White House," complains retired Air Force Lt. Col. B.E. Cushing, a Florida resident. He adds that the word is that the Republican leadership is "urging and even threatening" members to keep them from signing the Discharge Petition.
For a century the cost has kept Congress from doing what it knows is the right thing, separating military retiree pensions from the disability payments that grow directly out of dangerous service to the nation.
The disparity was built into military pension law in 1891 when such payments for disabling wounds were enacted into law to benefit veterans of service in the Union Army in the Civil War. By then a number of former Confederate veterans sat in Congress, including Sen. Francis Marion Cockrell of Missouri, a former Confederate brigadier general.
Miffed that Confederate veterans would not benefit from the law, Cockrell successfully inserted language that prohibited anyone on active military service from drawing both regular military pay and disability payments. His argument that it would save money carried the day.
In the spring of 1944 Congress passed Public Law 78-314 that expanded the principle and required a dollar for dollar offset reduction of retired military pay for every dollar of disability compensation received - and specified that 100 percent disabled retirees would forfeit all of their retirement pay.
No other class is singled out for such treatment. Civil service employees, whether of the Department of Defense or Congress itself, are permitted to draw both full government retirement pay and service-connected disability payments without deduction.
It is the discrimination inherent in the law that rankles those who have spent a lifetime in service to the U.S. military and are now punished for that service by seeing their retired pay eaten up by a law they declare is both unfair and discriminatory.
Many military retirees are, ironically, rock-ribbed conservative Republicans who are now shocked to find their president and their party standing in the doorway blocking the best chance in decades to abolish The Disabled Veterans Tax.
One even cites these words from a Bush for President campaign flyer:
"The Bush plan keeps this country's commitment to earned benefits for all of our veterans and military retirees."
The 670,000 disabled military retirees are waiting, but not patiently.
Copyright 2003 Knight-Ridder