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Opening Statement of Hon. Steve Buyer, Ranking Republican Member, and a Representative in Congress from the State of Indiana

Good Morning. I want to welcome today’s witnesses and thank them for their testimony, and most important, thank them for their service to our nation. 

We are here today to discuss a question of equity: whether it is equitable to pay merchant marine veterans of World War II a “thank-you” payment for their service during the war. 

Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the contributions of these mariners to the war effort cannot doubt their bravery. 

During the early war years, through 1942, more allied merchant ships were being sunk than built; yet they sailed on and their cargoes helped keep our allies fighting while America prepared to exert its full and irresistible force.

The law recognizes two groups of Merchant Mariners; those who served before the Japanese surrender in August 1945, and those who joined after that date.

As of January 17, 1988, Merchant Mariners who served between the start of the war on December 7, 1941, and the surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945, receive full veterans benefits and status.  The granting of veterans status was made possible by the G.I. Bill Improvement Act of 1977, Public Law 95-202. 

The law also created an administrative process by which civilian or contract employees could apply to the Secretary of Defense for veteran status to obtain VA benefits.  The Secretary in turn designated the Secretary of the Air Force to be DoD’s executive agent to administer the process.

The first group of Merchant Mariners have access to VA health care.  They also have access to disability compensation and pension, loan guarantee, education, insurance, and burial and death benefits. 

On October 10, 1998, the House passed H.R. 4110, the Veterans Programs Enhancements Act of 1998, which was signed into law on November 11, 1998. 

This bipartisan bill gave limited benefits to the post-surrender group of Merchant Mariners who served between August 16, 1945, and December 31, 1946.  The bill provided eligibility for burial benefits and interment in a national cemetery.

Before us today is the discussion of H.R. 23, which is entitled a “Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II.”

This bill would give $1,000 per month, tax free, to Merchant Mariners and their surviving spouses.  Mr. Chairman, this equates to giving these veterans a non service-connected pension regardless of their income, something we do not do for other veterans with one exception. 

The only other group of veterans who receive such a pension are recipients of the Medal of Honor. 

I must point out that H.R. 23 has no provision to pay for the benefits offered under the bill.  That means this bill cannot pass unless this committee finds the offsets or Chairman Spratt of the Budget Committee provides new funding.  Yesterday, CBO estimated the bill at a cost of $40 million the first years and $2.9 billion over ten years.

In short, thank-you funds for Merchant Mariners do not exist.  And if equity is truly your objective, I am curious why we are not also -- following your line of reasoning -- discussing similar payments to the 32 other World War II civilian groups that received veterans status under P.L. 95-202.

Consider the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the famed Flying Tigers and all the other groups which gained their status decades after their service.  They served loyally, selflessly, and courageously.  Their service contributed directly to victory in 1945.  Yet this bill does nothing for them

The 2006 edition of Federal Benefits for Veterans and Dependents contains a complete list of these groups beginning on page 64.

Mr. Chairman, you have also promised to pay certain Filipino veterans of World War II hundreds of millions of dollars from a 2008 budget reserve that in fact has no money in it.  Yet, these honorable aging veterans of the war in the Pacific, as well as their wives, believe in good faith they will shortly receive thousands of dollars each. 

But will they?

The difficult reality is that under PAYGO money must be found; it has not been found for the Filipino veterans and apparently this bill for Merchant Mariners faces the same problem.  Setting aside the question of just how the figure of $1,000 was arrived at, may I ask, Mr. Chairman, if necessary offsets have been identified for these Merchant Mariners?

Before we hear from our witnesses, I have just one more question, Mr. Chairman.  To get their $1,000, Merchant Mariners must, according to this bill, certify to the Secretary of Transportation that they served during World War II.

My understand is that all records from the Merchant Marine Service during World War II are kept by the United States Coast Guard, which has been under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security since 2003.  However, the bill requires Merchant Mariners to apply for benefits to the Secretary of Transportation.

So my question, Mr. Chairman is: who will certify the Merchant Mariner’s record?  Will it be the Secretary of Transportation or the Secretary of Homeland Security?

With that point clarified, I look forward to today’s discussion.

I yield back, Mr. Chairman.