Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Palin Effect on S.1315

Before Congress adjourned for its August recess, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi assured supporters of the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill that she would put S.1315, the Veterans Benefits Enhancement bill, to a vote when Congress resumed its regular session in September. It has been two weeks since then - with less than two weeks left to go before Congress adjourns - and there is still no word as to when, or if, the House will vote on S. 1315. What has happened since?

According to AsianWeek columnist Emil “Amok”Guillermo, what happened was the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah “the Bridge to Nowhere” Palin.

“The Palin effect is so great that not only has it changed both the gender and the change issues in the race, but it has also impacted the Filipino vets issue,” Guillermo wrote. “With such a tight presidential race, the politics of protecting congressional seats is now a priority. What was a slam-dunk feel good vote in the Senate has now become a hot potato for House members up for re-election.”

Because S.1315 is about 40 votes short of the 218 needed to secure its passage in the House, there is widespread speculation that Speaker Pelosi is reluctant to bring the issue to a vote for fear that Democrats in close races would lose their seats if they voted for the bill and their Republican rivals point to this vote as an example of how the Democrats cared more about “foreign” veterans than “our own” American vets.

Instead of voting on the issue of whether Filipino veterans deserve to be properly compensated for their military service to the US during WW II, House Republican opponents of S. 1315, led by Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Indiana), have redefined the issue to now be whether the House should overturn the Hartness decision.

Hartness refers to a 2006 United States Court of Appeals veterans claims decision that overturned the Department of Veterans Affairs decision that denied an 86-year-old legally blind World War II veteran, Robert A. Hartness, a VA benefit called a special monthly pension. The court reversed the VA’s denial of benefits to Mr. Hartness, and required the VA to begin making those payments. During a floor debate
on the veterans bill last July 31, 2008, Buyer declared that “we are not going to repeal Hartness.”

Because the “Pay-Go” policy of the House requires Congress to determine where the money would come from for any bill requiring appropriations, Congressional supporters of S.1315 used the savings that would come from reversing the Hartness decision to finance the Filvets bill.

As Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) explained in his Senate speech on June 2, 2008, “Despite the fact that the purpose of the provision in S. 1315 which reverses the Hartness decision is to do nothing more than restore the clear intent of Congress, it has been mischaracterized by some as an attempt to withdraw benefits from deserving veterans in order to fund benefits to Filipino veterans. That is simply not the case. Such accusations fail to appreciate the facts of the matter that led the Senate to take corrective action.”

Despite Sen. Akaka’s clarification, there is still the fear that Republicans will run ads in the congressional races of vulnerable Democratic supporters of S.1315 accusing the Democrats of eliminating the veterans’ benefits of blind 86-year old American veterans like Robert Hartness just to pay 13,000 “foreign” Philippine-based veterans.

Perhaps the most outspoken veterans’ organization opposing S.1315 is the American Legion. While attending the Democratic National Convention in Denver, the “Amok” columnist had the opportunity to discuss the Filvets issue with Steve Robertson, director of the American Legion's National Legislative Commission.

Robertson, Guillermo learned, is not opposed to S.1315 and has in fact suggested “two sure-fire ways to bypass the fears of some congressmen all in a tizzy”.

Robertson’s suggestions: “First, Congress could simply waive the budget rules, which is done all the time. Second, it could attach S.1315 to an emergency supplemental bill or a continuing resolution, which do not fall under the provisions of the Balanced Budget Amendment.”

Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA), the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, is prepared to introduce a bill this week that would give Filipino WW II veterans a lump sum amount, similar to what Japanese Americans received for their WW II internment. Filner’s bill would provide $15,000 for US-based veterans and $9,000 for vets in the Philippines. When Filner proposed this same amendment last July 31, it
prompted Speaker Pelosi to come down to the floor and assure Filner and other Filvets supporters that S.1315 will be brought to a vote. Based on that assurance, Filner withdrew his amendment.

But since S.1315 has not been brought to a vote, Filner iwill present the same lump sum proposal to draw Speaker Pelosi to address the issue of S.1315 again.

Whatever it takes. Just get it passed. The clock is ticking. We’re running out of time. Please email Speaker Nancy Pelosi at melissa.shannon@ mail.house. gov and ask her to bring S.1315 to a floor vote now.

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