Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Unequivocal Support for S.1315 Needed

Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), the national vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s "point man" on the Filipino veterans equity issue, expressed great disappointment at news of the lack of unity in the Filipino community’s support for S. 1315, which he described as the “last best chance” to get a Filipino veterans equity bill to pass the US Congress.

“I can understand the sentiments of those who support full equity,” Rep. Honda told me in a telephone conversation on May 28, “I support full equity myself. But it just won’t happen.” There are major political and fiscal reasons why a bill that would grant approximately $900 a month to 18,000 Filipino WW II veterans will have no chance whatsoever of being passed by the US Congress and signed into law by Pres. George W. Bush.

A “full equity” bill would cost about $194-M a year and almost $2-B over 10 years. Even the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill (HR 760) sponsored by Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA), stoutly supported by proponents of full equity, only provided $500 a month for Filipino veterans in the Philippines.

S.1315, the Veterans Benefits Enhancement Bill, which passed the US Senate with an overwhelming 96-1 vote on April 24, 2008, provides $250-$300-M over 10 years for the Filipino WW II veterans.

Under the bill, which would take effect on April 1, 2009 if passed, about $50-M would be allocated for Filipino veterans in the first year and would steadily diminish over a 10 year period ($46-M year 2, $42-M year 3, etc).

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which prepared the estimate, took into consideration the fact that many of the Filipino veterans living in California (4,000out of the total of 6,000 vets in the US) may elect to keep the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) that they are currently receiving about $650 a month plus $200 from the state of California rather than the $900 a month they would receive as US VA pension because the veteran and his spouse would receive a higher monthly total SSI benefit of $1,500. They would not be entitled to combine both.

Because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi adopted the “Pay Go” (Pay as you go) rule, no bill appropriating any amount could be passed unless the sponsors of the bill identified the source of the funds. The sponsors of S.1315 identified the source of the funds which has been fodder for Republican opponents of the bill.

According to a memo distributed by Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Indiana), the ranking Republican on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, S.1315 “would eliminate special monthly pensions for many severely disabled veterans over 65 who are also receiving pensions for wartime service. It would use $156 million of the funds saved by this unprecedented cut in veterans' benefits eligibility to provide budgetary offsets to fund oversized pensions for non-citizen, non-resident World War II Filipino veterans.”

Riding on the anti-immigrant sentiment among Republicans, Buyer alleged that the benefits that would be cut from “those elderly, poor, disabled U.S. veterans” would be awarded instead to “non-citizen, non-resident World War II Filipino veterans.. (which) will put their average annual income 1400% above of the poverty rate in the Philippines…Sending this over-generous benefit to non-American citizens is not the best use of American taxpayer dollars in this time of economic downturn.”

To get S.1315 to pass the House, Speaker Pelosi will need all 230 House Democrats to support it and at least 60 House Republicans to reach the magic number of 290 (2/3rd of the 435 total number of House members) in order to call for a Suspension of the Rules that would avoid killer amendments that would delay, if not altogether kill the bill.

While the majority of House Republicans will accept Buyer’s recommendation and vote to oppose S.1315, there is hope that Rep. Darryl Issa (R-CA) can gather enough Republicans to join the Democrats in reaching the number of 290.

But to get all 230 House Democrats to support S.1315, there must be unprecedented unity in the Filipino community behind the bill. This is the cause of the general consternation about the letter that was sent to Speaker Pelosi by Veterans Equity Center (VEC) board member Regalado Baldonado where he thrashed S.1315 as “woefully insufficient” and asserted that "we cannot waiver in our position or tolerate any deviation from equal treatment for all of our Filipino WW II veterans.”

S.1315 is admittedly a “deviation from equal treatment” (just as the Filner bill was) as it would pay $900 a month to veterans in the US and $300 a month to veterans in the Philippines. “But it’s the best that we can get,” explained Rep. Honda. The realities of US politics require us to “tolerate” a bill that would discriminate on the basis of residence.

But it is not just the realities of US politics, it is also the reality of life and the cost of living. It is simply easier to live in the Philippines with one’s family in one’s home on a monthly pension of $300 a month (12000 pesos) plus 5000 pesos veterans’ monthly pension from the Philippine government than to live in the US on $900 a month.

Rep. Honda told me that supporters of “full equity” like the VEC can focus their attention, after S.1315 is passed and signed into law, into pushing for a subsequent bill that would seek to “compress” the 10 years of the pension allocation for Philippine-based veterans into 5 years. The actuarial reality for most of the veterans who are now 88 years (if they were 21 at the outset of the war in 1941) is that they will likely live for less than 5 years. “Compressing” the bill from 10 to 5 would allow Philippine veterans the opportunity to receive $600 a month over a 5 year period rather than $300 a month over 10 years.

These are incredibly difficult times now for the 12,000 veterans in the Philippines who are all eagerly awaiting passage of S.1315 to help them cope with skyrocketing food and fuel costs. While the young activist members of the VEC and the Student Action for Veterans Equity (SAVE) should be admired for sticking to their principles, the veterans in the Philippines know that they cannot eat their principles or fill their gas tanks with them.

When Major General Antonio Taguba (ret.), one of the highest-ranking Filipinos in the U.S. military and internationally known for his scathing report on Abu Ghraib, met in San Francisco with members of the Filipino community including members of the VEC, he urged them to be united in getting S.1315 passed and not to just dwell on the issue of “full equity”.

“Don’t make it a bumper sticker. Why do we have an East Coast set of circumstances and a West Coast set of circumstances?” asked Gen. Taguba. “It makes us look like we’re divided on the issue. What is our position today? To get this legislation passed through, that’s our only position.”

Members of the Filipino community are urged to email Speaker Nancy Pelosi and their representatives in Congress to express support for S.1315 by logging on to the website:

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