May 26, 2008 – President Bush opposes a new G.I. Bill of Rights. He worries that if the traditional path to college for service members since World War II is improved and expanded for the post-9/11 generation, too many people will take it.
He is wrong, but at least he is consistent. Having saddled the military with a botched, unwinnable war, having squandered soldiers’ lives and failed them in so many ways, the commander in chief now resists giving the troops a chance at better futures out of uniform. He does this on the ground that the bill is too generous and may discourage re-enlistment, further weakening the military he has done so much to break.
So lavish with other people’s sacrifices, so reckless in pouring the national treasure into the sandy pit of Iraq, Mr. Bush remains as cheap as ever when it comes to helping people at home.
Thankfully, the new G.I. Bill has strong bipartisan support in Congress. The House passed it by a veto-proof margin this month, and last week the Senate followed suit, approving it as part of a military financing bill for Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Senate version was drafted by two Vietnam veterans, Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, and Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska. They argue that benefits paid under the existing G.I. Bill have fallen far behind the rising costs of college.
Their bill would pay full tuition and other expenses at a four-year public university for veterans who served in the military for at least three years since 9/11.
At that level, the new G.I. Bill would be as generous as the one enacted for the veterans of World War II, which soon became known as one of the most successful benefits programs — one of the soundest investments in human potential — in the nation’s history.
Mr. Bush — and, to his great discredit, Senator John McCain — have argued against a better G.I. Bill, for the worst reasons. They would prefer that college benefits for service members remain just mediocre enough that people in uniform are more likely to stay put.
They have seized on a prediction by the Congressional Budget Office that new, better benefits would decrease re-enlistments by 16 percent, which sounds ominous if you are trying — as Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain are — to defend a never-ending war at a time when extended tours of duty have sapped morale and strained recruiting to the breaking point.
Their reasoning is flawed since the C.B.O. has also predicted that the bill would offset the re-enlistment decline by increasing new recruits — by 16 percent. The chance of a real shot at a college education turns out to be as strong a lure as ever. This is good news for our punishingly overburdened volunteer army, which needs all the smart, ambitious strivers it can get.
This page strongly supports a larger, sturdier military. It opposes throwing ever more money at the Pentagon for defense programs that are wasteful and poorly conceived. But as a long-term investment in human capital, in education and job training, there is no good argument against an expanded, generous G.I. Bill.
By threatening to veto it, Mr. Bush is showing great consistency of misjudgment. Congress should forcefully show how wrong he is by overriding his opposition and spending the money — an estimated $52 billion over 10 years, a tiniest fraction of the ongoing cost of Mr. Bush’s Iraq misadventure.
As partial repayment for the sacrifice of soldiers in a time of war, a new, improved G.I. Bill is as wise now as it was in 1944.