Rep. Jim Jontz (D-Ind.) wants a halfway house to treat veterans suffering from combat stress. Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) wants the federal government to pay the medical bills for any former prisoner of war.
Rep. James H. "Jimmy" Quillen (R-Tenn.) wants to ensure that veterans cemeteries are open for burials on weekends and holidays, and Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.) wants veterans' spouses, age 55 or over, to be able to remarry without losing any of their spousal death benefits.
Spurred by patriotic fervor over the Persian Gulf War, members of Congress are promising a dizzying array of benefits for current -- and prospective -- military veterans. "Nothing that any Congress or government department does can ever fully repay the men and women who serve at risk of their lives," Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) declared in a floor speech last week.
But Congress is trying. It is, in the words of Rep. G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, "red hot to do something for our returning veterans."
Nearly 100 veterans bills have been introduced in the 102nd Congress, with a measure drafted by Montgomery one of the most comprehensive. His bill would call on foreign governments to underwrite some of the costs of new veterans benefits, just as they are paying some of the costs of Operation Desert Storm.
Montgomery acknowledged that his bill is certain to be modified, but said in his 24 years on Capitol Hill he has never witnessed such an outpouring of legislation that would benefit current and former military personnel. He said he is confident that "some type of appreciation package" will be enacted by the time the congressional session ends.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a co-chairman of the Senate's Desert Storm Task Force, promises action on that side of the Capitol "within five or six weeks." Some of the likely Senate measures, such as providing Pentagon funds for counseling military children and adding restrictions on the assignment of military couples to combat zones, may not please Defense Department officials, said McCain, a decorated Vietnam War aviator and prisoner of war.
The current mood on Capitol Hill is markedly different from the final days of the 101st Congress, when a political stalemate blocked Senate passage of legislation offering a 5.4 percent cost-of-living increase to 2.5 million disabled veterans.
The rush to legislate worries Department of Veterans Affairs officials as well as some veterans groups.
"As a veteran advocate . . . I'm pleased for the veterans of Desert Storm, but in the short term I'm apprehensive for the existing group of us veterans and I'm scared as hell for us all in the long term," said Larry W. Rivers, executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "I am concerned when war and veterans are not the issue of the day or the month. Where will the commitment be?"
Rivers and others are fearful that Congress, as it has done in the past, will mandate new veterans programs and fail to fund them. That, said Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony J. Principi, is "the last thing I need."
Any new veterans programs must come with "a clear and unequivocal funding source," Principi said. Without that "we'll be five years down the pike when the funding source dries up and then the veterans are going to suffer," he said. "My concern is that we not rush too quickly and that we come up with a suitable package."
Montgomery promises that the House's consideration will be mindful of the costs of any new programs, a warning that was echoed by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) last week. He told the Senate that only the "emergency" expenses of Desert Storm -- not the costs of new, permanent benefits -- can be added to the budget without violating spending agreements.
The cost-of-living bill for veterans compensation programs and a companion measure setting up a new review procedure for illnesses among Vietnam veterans that may be linked to use of the defoliant Agent Orange were among the first bills enacted by the 102nd Congress.
John F. Heilman, legislative director of the Disabled American Veterans, and Philip Riggin, who holds a similar position with the American Legion, caution that the swift passage of those bills may be deceptive, reflecting a consensus that was present in Congress before the Persian Gulf fighting began. Both also warn that many of the recently offered veterans measures are old proposals that have been dusted off and quickly filed in hopes of passage in the new climate.
More troubling, the two lobbyists said, were the cuts in veterans programs that last year's budget agreement mandated and the additional cuts in the Bush administration's 1992 budget.
For example, the proposed VA budget would remove education benefits for the stepchildren of service personnel who die from service-connected causes, Heilman said. "It's a little item, but a measure of how low you can go," he said, adding that the change would save the government $1.1 million.
Much of the newly proposed legislation calls for increasing benefits, such as doubling the size of group life insurance offered military personnal to $100,000, and new programs, such as a Hire a Veteran Week in November.
Principi said the VA has been unable to analyze all of the legislation, but said few measures appear to address some of the department's long-standing problems.
"What is being neglected is the continuing problem of the VA medical care system," Riggin said. Veterans groups have argued that the VA's 172 hospitals have been underfunded for a decade, yet they are saddled with providing increasingly expensive medical care for the nation's 26 million veterans.
"We're talking about the continuing care responsibilities, care like AIDS, homelessness . . . drug and alcohol abuse, and the diseases of the elderly," Riggin said. "If you look at the VA, it's the only federal department that is dealing with all those problems."