It's unusual for Congress to pass a comprehensive bill to help thousands of veterans with a final legislative sprint that leaves veterans' service organizations wondering what just happened.
But that's what the Senate and House did last week. After a burst of closed-door compromises, they agreed to and separately passed the Veterans' Benefits Act of 2010 (HR 3219), and sent it on to President Barack Obama.
The package has no clear blockbuster initiative. But it improves many veterans' benefits including some allowances for disabled veterans and various veterans' insurance options. Employment protections are toughened for those returning to civilian jobs.
Service members moving out of phone service areas will be able to sever cell phone contracts without penalty. And new federal grants will be authorized for job training and counseling, child care services to homeless women veterans and homeless veterans with children.
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"I think it's fantastic, and I'm truly incredulous that it went through as fast at it did," said Tim Tetz, the American Legion's legislative director.
A week before passage, Tetz said he and the legion's national commander had visited with Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the veterans' affairs committee. Knowing Congress would adjourn soon and not return until after the November election, the legion had urged Akaka to clear an omnibus benefits bill at least during the post-election lame duck session.
Akaka said a bill was being worked. A week later, to Tetz's surprise, a bill chock-full of initiatives had passed both the House and Senate.
The House passed an original HR 3219 in July 2009 with a contentious provision to establish a $1,000 monthly payment to former World War II merchant marines regardless of need or disability. Senators and even many vet groups refused to support it, arguing it created a benefit not available to other vets. World War II-era merchant marines, they argued, already have full veteran status and can apply for VA benefits including a needs-based pension for the elderly.
When House negotiators agreed to remove the merchant marine language, the benefit package came together, expanded by a final packet of Senate amendments, many of them bills already passed by the House.
Here are highlights to take effect when the bill is signed:
The civil relief act is strengthened in two other ways, said retired Navy Capt. Samuel Wright, a legal expert with the Reserve Officers Association. It now will allow for the Department of Justice to bring a civil action against civil relief act violators and those found guilty will have to pay court costs and service members' attorney fees.
Architects of the bill found a way to pay for these improvements and many more by extending a reduction in VA pensions for veterans who have no spouse or children and who are covered by a Medicaid plan while residing in a nursing home. This allows the bill to save the VA $394 million over five years.