By Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 9, 2008
President Bush drew great applause during his State of the Union address last month when he called on Congress to allow U.S. troops to transfer their unused education benefits to family members. "Our military families serve our nation, they inspire our nation, and tonight our nation honors them," he said.
A week later, however, when Bush submitted his $3.1 trillion federal budget to Congress, he included no funding for such an initiative, which government analysts calculate could cost $1 billion to $2 billion annually.
Bush's proposal was added to the speech late in the process, administration officials said, after the president decided that he wanted to announce a program that would favor military families. That left little time to vet the idea, develop formal cost estimates or gauge how many people might take advantage of such a program. Some administration officials said the proposal surprised them, and they voiced concerns about how to fund it.
Some critics in Congress cite the episode as a case study of what they consider the slapdash way Bush has put together the legislative program for his final year in office. Still, the idea is generating bipartisan interest from members of Congress who are eager to assist military families coping with long-term absences of loved ones deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have drawn up legislation that would remove restrictions that currently prevent most troops from transferring education benefits to family members.
"It has some merit to it. I don't have any idea what it costs -- that's been one of the problems in the past," said Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.), chairman of the House Budget Committee. "That's not the only inconsistency or contradiction in his budget by any means. The budget overstates revenues and understates expenditures in a big way."
A senior White House official said the proposal was suggested to the president by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who got the idea from a military spouse who told him that the Army has a limited program to transfer education benefits. The spouse told Gates, " 'Army spouses get this benefit, other branches should, too.' He brought it to the president and said, 'I think this is a valid point,' " the official said.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Bush liked Gates's suggestion, which eventually became one sentence in the president's 53-minute State of the Union speech. "It is a good idea, and we are trying to determine the cost and put together a proposal," the official said.
Under the current GI Bill, service members are eligible for nearly $40,000 in education benefits, such as college tuition or employment training, after they complete three years of active duty. Nearly 70 percent of active-duty U.S. troops and veterans use at least part of these benefits, which cover three-quarters of the cost of tuition, room, board and fees in a four-year state university, according to Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, a Pentagon spokesman. U.S. officials concede that the cost would probably soar, with most families making full use of the benefits.
The GI Bill education benefits cost nearly $2 billion in fiscal 2006. Pentagon officials said they are unable to provide a figure for the potential cost of the new proposal, or for other initiatives for military families that Bush proposed in his State of the Union speech.
The president also called for expanded access to child -- care for military families and for new preferences for military spouses competing for positions in the federal government. Pentagon officials are working on those proposals as well. They said Bush envisions expanding child care for at least 58,000 military children ages 1 to 12 year-round. The Pentagon already provides care facilities for about 200,000 children.
A third component of the Bush initiative involves opening up more government employment opportunities for military spouses and providing money for training or professional certification so they can more easily find jobs when they move from state to state. A pilot program now provides up to $6,000 over two years to help spouses create such "portable" careers.
The Pentagon is still working out the potential costs, but it reports that about 77 percent of the 675,000 spouses of active-duty troops say they want or need to work and that they might take advantage of such a program.
The Army has a limited program that allows soldiers to transfer some of their education benefits to spouses or children, but it has several restrictions. For instance, only soldiers reenlisting in certain critical skill areas are eligible, and they are allowed to transfer only about half their benefits.
Retired Col. Robert Norton, deputy director for government relations at the Military Officers Association of America, said military families have been "clamoring" for an expansion of the GI Bill in recent years as a critical incentive for troops to stay in the service. He noted that the families endure much hardship and stress while following their spouses around the world or being separated for great lengths of time.
Most U.S. troops who use the GI program use only about half the education benefits, Norton said, and only a tiny percentage use all of their money, so the cost of allowing family members to participate in the program would probably be high. "There is likely to be a pretty hefty price tag," Norton said. "We think it's a good thing for military families. We would like to see the details."
The idea of allowing more troops to extend education benefits to family members has been percolating on Capitol Hill for some time. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.) has been pushing it for years and introduced a bill after Bush's surprise endorsement. His measure would drop the restrictions on how many benefits can be transferred and would allow members of the reserves and National Guard to participate.
In the Senate, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) has introduced similar legislation. In an interview, she said that she hopes the White House will back her plan. "We ought to be able to get it pretty quickly through," she said. "It was their idea, and they ought to get credit for it."
The idea has bipartisan support. "It was a very pleasant surprise coming from an administration that has tried to balance its budgets on the backs of military families," said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who is co-sponsoring Bartlett's bill. "I don't know where they got the idea, but I am not going to quibble."