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Witness Testimony of Col. Robert F. Norton, USA (Ret.), Government Relations, Deputy Director, Military Officers Association of America

MADAM CHAIRWOMAN AND DISTINGUISHED MEMBERS OF THE SUBCOMMITTEE, on behalf of the nearly 368,000 members of the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), I am honored to have this opportunity to present the Association’s views on Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) legislation before the Subcommittee. 

MOAA is an original founding member of the Partnership for Veterans’ Education, a consortium of military, veterans, and higher education groups who advocate for passage of a “total force” approach to the Montgomery GI Bill to meet the needs of our operating forces – active duty, National Guard and Reserve -- and veterans in the 21st century.

MOAA does not receive any grants or contracts from the federal government.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

MOAA appreciates the commitment of this Subcommittee to improving educational benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) for our nation’s returning warriors.  The pending National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY 2008 (H.R. 1585) includes significant MGIB upgrades for National Guard and Reserve service women and men called to serve the nation on active duty in contingency operations.  MOAA hopes that these positive steps will presage more comprehensive upgrades to the MGIB this year.

An addendum to this Statement presents MOAA’s “top 5” MGIB priorities for 2008.

MOAA’s position on the seven bills under consideration at this hearing follows:

H.R. 1102 (Rep. Vic Snyder, D-AR). MOAA strongly endorses a “total force” approach to the MGIB.  Active duty and reserve MGIB programs should be combined in Title 38 USC so that one Committee of jurisdiction can set benefit rates in proportion to the length and type of duty performed by all members of our armed forces.  MOAA endorses Chairman Filner’s H.R. 4889 as an important step towards putting the MGIB under one Committee of jurisdiction. H.R. 4889 would recodify the reserve active duty MGIB program in Chapter 1607, 10 USC into Title 38. 

H.R. 1211 (Rep. Jim Matheson, D-UT).  MOAA strongly endorses the principle of aggregation of MGIB entitlement for multiple active duty tours by operational reservists.  The pending FY 2008 NDAA (H.R. 1585) establishes the principle of cumulative MGIB entitlement for reservists for multiple call-ups.  However, the NDAA would only authorize 80% of the active duty MGIB for 36 months aggregate active duty service.  36 months of such service should yield full MGIB benefits at the three-year rate, currently $1101 per month for full-time study.   MOAA strongly recommends changing the rate formula for Chapter 1607 benefits from a percentage formula to “month-for-month entitlement” for each 90 days or more of active duty service. 

H.R. 1214 (Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-MN).  MOAA supports the generous increases in survivor and dependents educational assistance program benefits (Chapter 35) but we are concerned that veterans themselves would receive disproportionately less benefits under current law. 

H.R. 2247 (Rep. Rick Larsen, D-WA).  MOAA supports extending the 10-year readjustment period for post-service use of MGIB benefits or eliminating any time limit on such use. MOAA supports repealing the 14-year limit on use of basic reserve MGIB benefits, but only for in-service usage, consistent with the principle of scaling benefits according to the length and type of duty being performed. 

H.R. 2385 (Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-PA).  MOAA endorses a number of the upgrades in this bill but we recommend the Subcommittee endorse the position long espoused by the 49 member Partnership for Veterans’ Education, namely that MGIB rates should be set at the national average cost of a four-year public college or university education.  MOAA is opposed to the bill provision that would limit eligibility to all volunteer force members who happen to have ‘deployed overseas.’

H.R. 2702 (Rep. Bobby Scott, D-VA).  MOAA endorses a number of the upgrades in this bill but we recommend that MGIB rates be set at the national average cost of a four-year public college or university education

H.R. 2910 (Rep. Susan Davis, D-CA).  MOAA strongly endorses establishment of statutory protections for returning student-reservists under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.

H.R. 1102.   Total Force Educational Assistance and Integration Act of 2007

H.R. 1102 would establish an integrated approach to structuring MGIB benefits for active duty, National Guard and Reserve service men and women. 

Essentially, H.R.1102 would:

  • Recodify Chapters 1606 and 1607 of Title 10 USC (armed forces laws) in Title 38.
  • Establish a 10-year readjustment period for MGIB benefits earned by Guard and Reserve veterans who serve on active duty under contingency operation orders (pending in the NDAA for FY 2008 – H.R. 1585).
  • Change the formula for calculation of benefit amounts under Chapter 1607 from a percentage to month-for-month entitlement based on the active duty MGIB rate (Chapter 30, 38 USC) for each 90 days consecutive active duty period served.
  • Make other improvements, administrative corrections and conforming amendments

MOAA strongly supports the underlying principle in H.R.1102 that MGIB programs should be re-aligned with the realities of military service in the 21st century.

H.R. 1102 would restructure the MGIB under a “total force” approach to the MGIB.  MOAA and the Partnership for Veterans Education have long endorsed a streamlined architecture for the MGIB that would simplify and clarify benefit rates and enable better support for military recruitment and readjustment outcomes, as intended by Congress.  The total force MGIB would create three benefit levels or tiers based on the type and length of duty performed.

  • Tier one, the Active Duty MGIB (Chapter 30, Title 38).  Individuals who enter the active armed forces under two-year or longer enlistment contracts earn MGIB entitlement, unless they decline enrollment. 
  • Tier two, the Selected Reserve MGIB (presently, Chapter 1606, Title 10) -- MGIB benefits for a 6-year enlistment or reenlistment in the Guard or Reserve.  Chapter 1606 would be recodified under Title 38.  The Subcommittee of Economic Opportunity, House Committee on Veterans Affairs, would adjust benefit rates from time to time in proportion to active duty rates.  Historically, Selected Reserve benefits have been 47-48% of active duty benefits (vs. today’s 29%). 
  • Tier three, Reserve Educational Assistance Program (presently, Chapter 1607, Title 10), -- MGIB benefits for members of the Guard / Reserve who serve on active duty under “contingency operation” orders.  Chapter 1607 would be recodified in Title 38.  The rate structure would be adjusted to “tier one” benefits (currently, $1101 per month) for each month of activation after 90 days active duty, up to a maximum of 36 months for multiple call-ups.

A servicemember would have up to 10 years to use remaining entitlement under Tier One or Tier Three programs upon separation or retirement.   A Selected Reservist could use Chapter 1606 entitlement only while continuing to serve satisfactorily in the Selected Reserve.  However, Reservists who subsequently qualified for a reserve retirement or were separated / retired for disability would have 10 years following separation to use such benefits. 

In accordance with current law, in cases of multiple benefit eligibility, only one benefit could be used at one time, and total usage eligibility would extend to no more than 48 months.

Technical Issues.  H.R.1102 contains a number of technical errors.   For example, H.R. 1102 would inappropriately transfer reserve MGIB “kicker” funding authority to the Veterans Affairs Committees -- kickers are enhancements to MGIB benefits for enlistment in designated skills.  This and other technical ‘glitches’ are resolved in Section 525 of the House-passed version of H.R.1585.  Importantly, Section 525 would authorize the recodification of Chapters 1606 and 1607 into Title 38 on a cost-neutral basis.

MOAA strongly supports recodification of reserve MGIB programs in Title 38.  As a first step towards this outcome, MOAA endorses H.R. 4889, a bill that would recodify Chapter 1607 in Title 38.  MOAA also strongly endorses changing the Chapter 1607 rate mechanism to month-for-month entitlement of Chapter 30 benefits for multiple tours of active duty of 90 days or more up to a maximum of 36 months entitlement.  

H.R.1211, Resuming Education After Defense Service Act of 2007

H.R. 1211 would authorize reservists who serve on active duty in contingency operations to accrue multiple tours of active duty up to 24 months towards basic MGIB entitlement at the two-year rate under Chapter 30.

H.R. 1211 would entitle such individuals to one month of educational assistance for each month served on active duty. The bill would make the amount of such assistance equivalent to that provided for active-duty personnel who have served a minimum of two years of active duty. Entitlement would require the basic pay of qualifying members to be reduced by $100 for each of the first 12 months of such active duty service.

In keeping with today’s “operational reserve” policies, MOAA would recommend the following adjustments to the provisions of H.R. 1211.  First, strike the December 31, 2008 sunset clause. 

Second, allow MGIB benefit aggregation up to three years (36 months active duty service) vice two years.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced a modification of “operational reserve” policy on January 19, 2007.  The new policy requires reservists to be activated on the basis of “one year mobilized to five years demobilized ratio.”  The Secretary added that “today’s global demands will require a number of units to be remobilized sooner than this standard.”

In light of this policy change, MOAA recommends that MGIB aggregation should be permitted up to the point when a reservist has served 36 months of active duty service over multiple call-ups.  Doing so would qualify the reserve veteran with the MGIB at the full three-year rate.  Since 9/11, over 600,000 reservists have served on active duty including more than 142,000 who have multiple tours.  In many cases, operational reservists will serve three or more years on active duty over a 20 year career.  Their active duty service should aggregate towards full MGIB entitlement when they have 36 months of cumulative service.

H.R. 1214, Veterans’ Survivors Education Enhancement Act

H.R. 1214 would increase survivors’ and dependents’ educational benefits (DEA) under Chapter 35, 38 U.S. Code to $80,000 and permit dependent children to draw from this amount for during any time between the ages of 17 and 30.

The bill also would permit lump-sum payments “in any amount” up to the new limit for institutional coursework or training, on-the-job training, correspondence courses, special educational assistance and farm cooperative programs.  The bill, then, appears to eliminate DEA monthly rates for allocating educational benefits under Chapter 35.  Presently, DEA participants can receive 45 months of benefits at up to $881 per month, a total of $39,645 for full-time study or training.

MOAA supports the intent of H.R. 1214.  We are also grateful for earlier Congressional action (2004) that raised DEA rates and authorized survivors to access remaining DEA benefits for up to 20 years after the death of the sponsor.

MOAA is concerned, however, over the concept of creating benefits under DEA that are substantially more generous than those authorized for veterans themselves.  H.R. 1214 would authorize up to $80,000 in lump-sum payments for coursework or training compared to $39,636 in Chapter 30.  Veterans have only 10 years after service to use their benefits.  Survivors have 20 years to access their DEA benefits.  Under the bill, dependent children would have 13 years to use their benefits between the ages of 17 and 30 under the bill. 

MOAA supports the intent of H.R. 1214 and recommends that basic MGIB benefits  be upgraded proportionally, including authorization of lump sum payments and extension of the readjustment period.

H.R. 2385, the 21st Century GI Bill of Rights Act of 2007

H.R. 2385 would entitle certain servicemembers, including National Guard and Reserves, to basic educational assistance under the MGIB who (after September 11, 2001) are deployed overseas; or serve for an aggregate of at least two years or, before such period, are discharged due to a service-connected disability, hardship, or certain medical conditions.  The bill would entitle such individuals to 36 months of educational assistance; authorize a ten-year readjustment period to use the benefits after discharge; and for other purposes.

H.R. 2385 has features that are similar in some respects to H.R. 2702 (see following section).  However, H.R. 2385 would set educational payment rates at the “national average amount of tuition regularly charged for full-time pursuit of programs of education at public and private institutions [emphasis added] of higher education” (Section 3313(h)(2)). 

H.R.2385 would create a parallel or alternative educational assistance program to the MGIB -- rather than upgrade or improve benefits under the latter. 

In addition to the issue of the “deployed” criterion, the bill would essentially replace the MGIB for post-9/11 service until the current national emergency / war on terror is “won” or concluded in some way.  The duration of earlier conflicts such as the Korean War, Vietnam war and Gulf War I indicate that the program proposed under H.R. 2385 might coexist alongside the MGIB for years and cause confusion for recruiting purposes and the effective administration of the MGIB.   

MOAA does not support the provision in H.R. 2385 that restricts benefit entitlement to All Volunteer Force service men and women who happen to have “deployed overseas” (Subchapter II, Section 3311) since 9/11.  Since World War II, deployment status has never been a criterion for GI Bill entitlement. 

MOAA believes that H.R. 2385 illustrates the need to develop a coherent “total force” approach to structuring the MGIB for all members of the volunteer force who serve the nation in peace and war. 

H.R. 2702, the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2007

H.R. 2702 would establish “wartime” service GI Bill benefits that would permit service men and women who serve or have served since 9/11 and who meet the requisite active duty service requirements to be reimbursed for a substantial amount of their schooling or education.

Reimbursement rates would be calculated on “the maximum amount of tuition regularly charged in-state students for full-time pursuit of programs of education by the public institution of higher education in the State in which the individual is pursuing such program of education that has the highest rate of regularly-charged tuition for programs of education among all public institutions of higher education in such State” (Section 3313(j)(2)).  Under the bill, rates would vary considerably for veterans based on a state-by state calculation of the highest in-state tuition costs.  Veterans would likely re-locate to states where the reimbursement rates were more generous.   

Veterans would receive a $1000 per month stipend for 36 months.  Veterans would have up to 15 years after their service to exhaust entitlement.

National Guard and Reserve “wartime” veterans with qualifying active duty service would be entitled to the benefits described in the bill if they completed 24 months of consecutive active duty service.

In MOAA’s view, H.R. 2702 has some very attractive features including raising GI Bill benefit rates, eliminating the $1200 payroll reduction, extending the post-service usage period (to 15 years), and establishing a readjustment benefit for mobilized reservists. 

MOAA has a few concerns over certain provisions in H.R. 2702 that are similar to our concerns over H.R. 2385 (above).  MOAA does not support restricting the benefits proposed in the bill for “wartime” service as indicated.  Only in the case of service-connected disabilities should educational benefits be differentiated for our volunteer force men and women, not the period of their service or their deployment status. 

The bill also creates the dilemma of a new GI Bill operating alongside the current MGIB – see similar comment regarding H.R. 2385 above.  In addition, the payment metric proposed is likely to cause lots of confusion since reimbursements could vary widely from state to state.  The Veterans Benefits Administration would have to constantly re-calculate reimbursement rates for veterans. 

Another shortcoming in H.R.2702 is the absence of MGIB “kicker” authority for the military services – Section 3015(d), 38 USC.   DoD has long used financial incentives -- “kickers” -- as tools to distribute military manpower into high demand skills needed for readiness.  Kickers have proven very effective in combination with the MGIB to support armed forces recruiting goals. 

Early in this decade, former Committee Chairman Chris Smith (R-NJ) oversaw efforts to upgrade the MGIB over a three-year period.  If a similar approach were adopted by the Subcommittee for H.R. 2702), MOAA would recommend in priority order:

  1. Base MGIB rate increases on the national average cost of a four-year public college / university education.  Dept. of Education data indicate the MGIB currently covers about 75% of the cost of attendance including in-state tuition, required fees, and resident student room and board. 
  1. Authorize cumulative month-for-month entitlement up to 36 months under the MGIB (Chapter 30, 38 USC) for reservists who serve on multiple active duty tours in contingency operations.  (See discussion, above, on H.R. 1211).
  1. Extend the post-service readjustment period to 15 years or more, or eliminate the time limit. (See H.R. 2247, below).
  1. Eliminate the $1200 payroll reduction for active duty service entrants.
  1. Establish a monthly living expense stipend over and above educational reimbursement rates.

H.R. 2247, Montgomery GI Bill for Life Act of 2007

H.R. 2247 would repeal the 10-year delimiting date on post-service use of MGIB benefits (Chapter 30 entitlement).  The bill also would repeal the 14-year limitation on basic reserve benefits (Chapter 1606) for inactive duty (drill) service.  H.R. 2247 creates lifetime entitlement to remaining Chapter 1607 benefits for reservists who have such entitlement and become disabled. 

MOAA supports extending the 10-year limitation on post-service use of remaining MGIB entitlement, or eliminating any such time limit.  We note that survivors have 20 years to use Survivors and Dependents Educational Assistance benefits (Chapter 35).  (H.R. 2702, above, would extend the delimiting date to 15 years). 

MOAA strongly supports lifetime entitlement for all disabled service men and women (not only reservists disabled after being activated); accordingly, we recommend coordination of the this change with the provisions of the Vocational Rehabilitation Program under Chapter 31, 38 USC.

MOAA supports repeal of the 14-year in-service-only limitation on basic reserve benefits (Chapter 1606)   for inactive duty service only.  We do not support establishment of a lifetime, post-service benefit for inactive duty service benefits, consistent with the total force MGIB principle of scaling benefits to the length and type of duty performed. 

H.R. 2910, Veterans Education Tuition Support Act of 2007

H.R. 2910 would establish in law specific requirements that would protect reservists returning to an academic setting following a call-up to active duty.  The bill would amend the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act (SCRA) in essentially four ways by:

  • Authorizing refunds for students activated during a semester or quarter of study
  • Guaranteeing re-enrollment upon return
  • Extending the time a student has to re-enroll or to begin student loan repayments
  • Capping student loans at 6% during an activation (like other debt protections under the SCRA)

MOAA has long endorsed statutory protections to ensure the academic re-integration of returning student-reservists.   In our view, policies alone do not afford sufficient protections for reservists returning to school following active duty service.  Student “reemployment” rights – hassle free return to academic pursuits – are long overdue.  

The Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act of 2003 (HEROS) fails to provide servicemembers meaningful security.  Colleges and universities are not required to refund tuition and fees to students who don’t complete their classes due to a deployment.  Schools are also not required to minimize the procedural hoops a servicemember must jump through to re-enroll. A reservist who takes a leave of absence for a year to serve the nation on active duty often must re-apply to the very school from which she took leave.

With respect to the refund provisions of H.R. 2910, the Subcommittee should consider as an option requiring an academic institution to apply any refund amount in the case of a withdrawal during a semester (or other defined academic course period) to other coursework upon a reservist’s re-enrollment. 

If the nation expects to sustain an “operational reserve” policy, Congress must enact stronger protections for our young student-reservists when they return to the academic setting following a call-up. 

MOAA recommends the Subcommittee favorably report out H.R. 2910 to establish academic re-instatement and financial protections under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.

Conclusion

MOAA appreciates the growing interest in Montgomery GI Bill reform and we look forward to working with the Members of the Subcommittee to ensure that our 21st century warriors, including operational reservists from the National Guard and Reserve, receive the benefits that match their service and sacrifice on behalf our nation.

Addendum: “Top Five” Priorities for the MGIB in 2008 (next page)


MOAA’s “Top Five” Legislative Priorities for the Montgomery GI Bill in 2008

  1. Raise MGIB rates.  Prior to September 11, 2001, the House Veterans Affairs Committee endorsed a three-step increase to basic MGIB rates and the establishment of an annual COLA to adjust such rates.  Subsequent enactment of this change in 2001 has enabled the MGIB today to cover about 75% of the average cost of a four-year public college / university education based on Dept. of Education data.  Various legislative proposals have been introduced to raise MGIB reimbursementto cover more, or even all of the cost of veterans’ education or training programs.  The present full-time study rate for veterans with three years of service is $1101 (Chapter 30, 38 U.S. Code).  Raising the rate will encourage more veterans to use their benefits and, in turn, give them the education / skills to be more productive citizens, thereby returning to the economy more than the cost of their earned benefits.  MOAA strongly supports raising MGIB reimbursement rates to at least the average cost of a four-year public college or university education.
  1. Authorize cumulative month-for-month MGIB entitlement under Chap. 30 for reservists who serve multiple active duty periods of service (up to 36 months active duty).  The FY 2008 National Defense Authorization Act establishes in law a principle of “cumulative” entitlement to Chapter 1607 MGIB benefits for multiple periods of active duty performed by members of the National Guard and Reserve forces.  Under the change, reservists who serve an aggregate of up to 36 months active duty in a contingency operation will earn 80% of the active duty MGIB.  It’s our understanding that reservists who serve 24 months consecutively also will continue to receive 80% of the active duty MGIB (the same rate available to active duty soldiers with a two-year enlistment).  MOAA appreciates the creation of a cumulative principle, but we disagree strongly with the percentage formula as adopted by the NDAA.  Reservists who accrue up to 36 months active duty over multiple call-ups should be entitled to the full MGIB under Chapter 30.  A reserve warrior with eight years’ service can expect to serve multiple activations under “operational reserve” rules and likely be deployed for all of them.  Under such circumstances, reservists who accrue 36 months of cumulative service should be entitled to the same MGIB as an active duty soldier with a three-year enlistment contract who is deployed once (or never deployed).  MOAA strongly recommends adoption of a cumulative month-for-month formula for entitlement to the active duty MGIB for operational reservists who serve at least 90 days on any one tour, up to a maximum of 36 months
  1. Restore proportional parity between basic reserve MGIB (Chapter 1606, 10 U.S. Code) rates and the active duty program.  The basic reserve MGIB rate was set at 47% of the active duty program in 1984 and retained that ratio for 15 years from 1985-1999.  Subsequent increases in active duty program benefit levels, combined with static reserve benefit levels, have reduced reserve MGIB rates to less than 29% of the active duty program’s, at a time when Guard and Reserve recruiting is under enormous strain.  If proportional parity were restored in one year, basic reserve rates for full-time study would increase from $317 to $517 per month for full-time study.  Stair-step increases would lower the cost over a three to five year period.  MOAA strongly endorses restoring proportional parity between the basic reserve MGIB and the active duty program. 
  1.  Integrate reserve and active duty MGIB programs in Title 38. Given past DoD opposition to most reserve MGIB program improvements, it is unlikely that items 2 and 3, above – month-for-month entitlement and rate hikes for Chapter 1606 benefits – will be possible without recodification.  In passing the NDAA, the defense conferees modeled most of the reserve program improvements -- as noted in the accompanying cover letter – on the existing Chapter 30 framework.   MOAA greatly appreciates House passage of recodification of the reserve programs in Title 38, but we were disappointed that the NDAA conferees failed to adopt the House language.  Now that Congress has endorsed a readjustment benefit for operational reservists, there is no longer a compelling reason in our view to leave the Chapter 1607 program in Title 10.  Under Chapter 30, DoD and VA responsibilities are clear: DoD sets eligibility rules for enlistment, funds “kickers” for enlistment in critical skills, conducts actuarial valuations of the normal cost of the MGIB (Section 2006, 10 USC), and reports the number of eligibles to the VA.  For the reserve programs, DoD does essentially the same thing: determines eligibility, funds “kickers”, determines the “normal cost”, and reports participants.  The VA administers all MGIB programs and payments now, and that would not change under recodification.  Under the House-passed language, DoD and VA responsibilities would remain as described above.  The difference would be that one Committee would be responsible for overseeing the administration of the active duty and reserve programs -- a total force approach to the MGIB.  Because of the proportional benefit gap and the dramatic surge in duty requirements of our Guard/Reserve members, the total GI Bill program is no longer structured to match the nation’s military policy for the operational integration of our active and reserve forces.  MOAA continues to strongly endorse recodification of the reserve MGIB programs into Title 38.
  1. Open enrollment in the MGIB for all currently serving members who declined enrollment, and for all new service entrants in the future.  The MGIB should be an entitlement that accompanies an enlistment, service agreement or appointment for all members of the volunteer force.  With the operational integration of the total force, the $1200 payroll reduction has become a nuisance and a morale “downer” for new recruits, and is inconsistent with the dramatically increased sacrifices borne by our service men and women.  Moreover, as reserve and active duty programs are gradually aligned according to the length and types of duty performed, the $1200 enrollment tax serves as a barrier to true implementation of a total force approach to the MGIB.    21st century warriors should be guaranteed enrollment in the MGIB upon entry into the service with no payroll reduction.  Officers commissioned from a Service Academy or ROTC Scholarship program should be offered the MGIB in exchange for a service extension commitment.    Government student loans require no service to the nation and no upfront payment, which makes the $1200 MGIB fee seem mean-spirited at best.  MOAA strongly endorses guaranteed enrollment in the MGIB for all members of the volunteer force and the elimination of the $1200 enrollment “tax”.