Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this column incorrectly identified the writer as Michael Abramowitz. This was written by Dan Eggen. This version has been corrected.
Education-Benefits Plan Could Face Math Test

By Dan Eggen
Monday, May 12, 2008

Three months after President Bush raised the idea of allowing U.S. troops to transfer education benefits to relatives, the White House has finally sent a formal proposal to Capitol Hill.

Whether it has a chance of passing is another matter.

Bush drew big applause during his State of the Union address in January when he proposed allowing the transfer of unused education benefits. The announcement had come as a surprise to major veterans groups and garnered criticism from Democrats because the administration did not have an actual proposal or a plan to pay for it.

Last Tuesday, during an event commemorating Military Spouses Day, Bush announced that he had sent legislation to Capitol Hill that would allow soldiers to transfer unused education benefits to spouses or children. The proposal also includes plans for expanded access to child care and job training for military spouses.

The White House has not provided a cost estimate for the education initiative, saying only that the program would be paid for within the existing Defense Department budget. Government analysts had previously calculated that such a program could cost $1 billion to $2 billion a year. The White House says the child-care and job-training provisions would cost much less, about $1.5 billion through 2014.

Congress is already wrangling over a GI Bill expansion proposed by Sens. James Webb (D-Va.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) that does not include the benefits-transfer idea. The bill has attracted strong support from veterans groups but is opposed by many Republicans, and some conservative Democrats, as too costly.

Webb wants to focus on expanding the education benefits available to soldiers first, spokeswoman Jessica Smith said. Smith also questioned why the Bush administration has not taken better advantage of a 2001 law that allows some education transfers.

Patrick Campbell, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which strongly supports the Webb-Hagel bill, said allowing family transfers of education benefits is "a great idea" but is not one of his group's top goals.

"All the proposals are good proposals; they're just not the priorities of most veterans groups right now," Campbell said.

White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said that several pending GOP bills in Congress include provisions for transferring education benefits that are similar to the plan proposed by the administration. And Bush, during the ceremony honoring the sacrifices of military spouses, indicated he had high hopes for the idea.

"This legislation is moving," Bush said. "I hope to be able to sign it as quickly as possible."

One Anniversary, Two Calendars

President Bush will arrive in the Middle East on Wednesday to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel -- six days after Israelis' own celebration.

No, this was not a White House scheduling mix-up. The official Israeli celebration was based on the Hebrew calendar, which put the anniversary on Saturday. But because of the Sabbath, the government moved the party back to Thursday.

But Bush is right on time according to the Roman calendar, which marked Israel's founding on May 14, 1948.

Got that?

The trip includes an "honorary delegation" of more than 70 prominent Jewish Americans, including former Nixon aide Henry Kissinger, former political columnist William Safire, activist and author Elie Wiesel, and publisher Mort Zuckerman.

Other expected attendees include Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League; Texas venture capitalist Fred S. Zeidman; casino mogul Sheldon G. Adelson; and Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Washington director of American Friends of Lubavitch.

The delegation members will pay for their own lodging, airfare and other costs, a White House official said.

Secret, but Not That Secret

Widely criticized as having a penchant for secrecy, President Bush issued new regulations Friday for documents that are often treated as secret, even though they're not.

In a memo to Cabinet members and agency heads, Bush outlined the rules for a new category of "Controlled Unclassified Information," or CUI, which will replace a hodgepodge of more than 100 labels that agencies such as the FBI and the Defense Department attach to documents that are deemed sensitive but not secret.

There will be three levels of CUI records -- standard, specified and enhanced -- which roughly compare to four kinds of classified documents outlined in federal statutes.

Public information advocates said the rules may improve sharing within the government but probably won't do much to improve outside access to records.

"I can't immediately see a way that this will make things worse, and it should improve government efficiency," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "If they're doing bad things, they will do bad things more efficiently."

Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, said the system "could increase the problem of pseudo-secrecy, where documents are withheld even though they are not actually secret."

A First Lady's Firsts

First lady Laura Bush minced few words in a news conference last week on the devastation in Burma.

She derided Burma's ruling junta as "very inept," accused it of failing to warn citizens and said that her husband would go ahead with a ceremony bestowing a Congressional Gold Medal on dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Burmese junta -- which spent all week blocking humanitarian assistance as the death toll neared 100,000 -- found the time to take a potshot at the first lady. "What we are doing is better than the Bush administration response to the Katrina storm in 2005, if you compare the resources of the two countries," spokesman Ye Htut told reporters.

Human rights advocates and regional experts, including many who are critical of the Bush administration on other issues, called the comparison absurd.

"For all its faults, the Bush administration's failures over Katrina were concerned with various problems of application, implementation et cetera," said Sean Turnell, editor of the Burma Economic Watch newsletter in Australia. "The ones we're seeing in Burma -- and have always seen in Burma -- are sins of deliberate commission."

As for Laura Bush's news conference in the official White House briefing room, it appears to be unprecedented, according to Carl Sferrazza Anthony, consulting historian at the National First Ladies' Library.

Although many first ladies have met with the media, Anthony said, "no other to my knowledge held a briefing in the press room," which is generally used by the president and his senior aides.

Anthony noted that during the first term, Laura Bush was also the first presidential spouse to fill in for her husband by delivering the weekly Saturday radio address.

Quote of the Week

"What gets covered obviously is bad news. That's -- you know, if everything is going swimmingly, then that's not news, so it doesn't get the kind of attention."

-- Vice President Cheney, in a radio interview Friday, after being asked whether successes in Iraq get enough media attention.

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