THIS COUNTRY is getting its priorities backward in its obligations to military veterans. Congress is now about to pass very large increases in pensions for those veterans with the least claim to special benefits. They are the people who were well and able-bodied when they were discharged from the service and, subsequently, in civilian life - for reasons unrelated to military service - have been disabled and fallen into need. Sometimes the need is real. But the most common disability is age; under the law, any veteran over 65 is presumed to be, for pension purposes, totally disabled.
Frequently even the need is, shall we say, artificial. There is a widespread pattern of men retiring early and claiming these pensions on grounds of poverty, while their wives continue to work and to support their families in comfortable circumstances. The present law does not take family income into account. Both houses of Congress have now voted, all but unanimously, to raise these pensions at a cost that could be, next year, more than $600 million
Here you get another glimpse of the struggle over who gets what share of each dollar in veterans' benefits. In the democratic spirit, the politics of veterans' benefits is strongly influenced by numbers. The great bulge of World War II veterans are now getting close to retirement age. Their interests, as we have pointed out before in this space, are not the same as those of the much younger people who served during the Vietnam War. Under the pressure of those numbers, Congress is now about to skew the whole benefit program in favor of old-age pensions.
The right order of priorities in veterans' benefits begins with the unconditional commitment to care and compensation for the veterans who suffered permanent and severe injuries in military service. There is also an obligation to career soldiers - whose earned pensions, incidentally, are entirely separate from the veterans' benefits that we are describing here. Beyond that, the country has a clear duty to people as they leave the services, to help them re-establish themselves in civilian life. That duty is great initially but, in our opinion, it diminishes over the years. This principle applies as much to the cash benefits as it does to the job preferences that we discussed here on Friday.
Veterans' pensions were established in the days before there was only general protection for the elderly and destitute. But today, of course, there is a vast structure of aid. Nearly80 percent of the people receiving these veterans' pensions are also drawing Social Security checks. For elderly people whose Social Security is not enough to live on, Congress has now provided SSI - supplemental security income. With SSI in force, there is no need for veterans'pensions.
The national responsiblity to the veteran who is destitute, through causes unrelated to his military service, is the same as to any other citizen who is destitute. The proper standard for the monthly benefit now going through Congress would raise the veterans' pensions a good deal higher. The present maximum annual payment to a single veteran is $2,364. Under the Senate bill, it would go to $3,240. The House would nearly double it to a round $4,000.
In defense of the two veterans' affairs committees, it needs to be said that this bill is not a simple give-away. Both House and Senate versions would prevent the evasion that we noted earlier: the veteran who chooses not to work, but to draw a pension while living on his wwife's earnings. The bill would count family income against the veteran's pension eligibility. Because of this change, in the long run, beginning around 1990, the pensions would begin to cost less under the bill than under present law. But in the meantime the country would be paying a high price to buy out a bad practice. The bill also contains, in both versions, a number of expensive absurdities like the large additional paymens to anyone over 80.
There is too much money in this bill, and there are too many other veterans' benefit programs that deserve it more. The bill is now moving toward a conference. If the conference committee does not hold these pensions down close to the present SSI level, President Carter would best protect veterans' interests by recycling the bill - vetoing it, and sending it back to the committees to try again.