Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Vets' High Stakes Gamble

For the Filipino WW II veterans who were anxiously awaiting a vote on S.1315, September 22 was a roller coaster day on Capitol Hill. The word had gone out to the veterans the Friday before that the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill which had been incorporated in S.1315, the Veterans Benefits’ Enhancement Bill, would finally go for a vote on Monday, on the last week before Congress adjourned for the year. All the years of painstaking lobbying by these hardy octogenarian veterans would now culminate in the much anticipated vote.

They were grateful to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for delivering on her promise to bring S.1315 for a floor vote. As the veterans in the gallery watched, the motion was made to pass S.1315 by unanimous consent. It was seconded and the members voted. Unanimously.

This was absolutely incredible! A fairy tale ending? But how could it be this easy? There must be a catch somewhere. Sure enough, there was.

Before S.1315 could be voted on, Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA), the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, had moved to amend the bill to exclude the Filipino Veterans Equity provision (Title IV) and the provision overruling the Hartness case which provided the funding mechanism for the bill under the House’s “Pay-Go” rule.

Other provisions of S.1315 which similarly required an overrule of Hartness were also stripped from S.1315 in order to overcome Republican opposition to the bill. Filner’s motion was seconded and approved without opposition.

After the unanimous vote on the amended S.1315, Filipino WW II veterans met with Filner at his House office to thank him for securing passage of S.1315. What? Why? The answer is a little complicated but it involves a political dance so sophisticated Fred Astaire would be impressed.

Eric Lachica, executive director of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans (ACFV), described the dance as taking one step back to move two steps forward.

Congressional supporters of Filipino Veterans Equity recognized the political reality that there were not enough votes in the House to pass the Filipino veterans equity bill. Primarily, this was because passage involved overruling the Hartness case which would mean depriving about 20,000 US veterans of the benefits they were receiving because a federal claims judge had issued a ruling that awarded disabled veterans more money than Congress intended.

Because Filner recognized that there was no chance of overruling Hartness in this election year, he decided to sponsor a bill that would bypass the “Pay-Go” House rule because it would not be a funded mandate. He crafted an alternative bill, HR 6897, which would establish a Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund that would award to Filipino WW II veterans a lump sum of $15,000 for eligible U.S. citizens and $9,000 for eligible non-citizens.

Filipino veterans and their supporters throughout the US who had viewed Filner as their champion in the House were confused and quickly denounced the Filner bill. Fred Gallardo of the Council of Pilipino American Organization (COPAO) organized a rally in Chula Vista , San Diego , California (Filner’s home district) to oppose Filner’s bill.

According to Gallardo, “the token benefits to be derived from HR 6897 denies the WW II veterans parity or equal benefits as other US servicemen of their era…This bill would forever foreclose any chance of overturning the shameful 1946 Rescission Act and shall constitute a complete release of any claim against the United States by reason of any service."

Gallardo’s sentiments were echoed by Filvets supporters in Washington , DC , New York , Los Angeles , Hawaii , San Jose , Virginia , Texas , Florida , Chicago , and New Jersey . "Philippine Ambassador Willy Gaa also expressed objections to Filner’s introduction of HR 6897," Gallardo said.

Despite the outcry from the Filipino community, Filner’s bill was approved unanimously by his veterans affairs committee after Steve Buyer (R-Indiana) amended it by including a provision that would end all claims for benefits by Filipino WW II veterans. Buyer’s amendment, according to vets supporter Sonny Sampayan, makes the bill "unjust and unfair for our WW II Filipino veterans."

"The $ 15,000 lump sum for Filipino veterans who are US citizens is too little, too late," he said. "If they receive this amount and they will be stripped off their annual $11,000 through Supplemental Security Income (SSI), it will be unconscionable," Gallardo said.

Not quite. If the veterans who receive the $15,000 lump sum payment gave all of it to their kids and left none for themselves, they would continue to be eligible for the SSI payments they are currently receiving.

Filner urged supporters of Filipino veterans equity to “be quiet for the next two days to allow us to do our work" alluding to the heavy criticism of his bill from members of the Filipino community.

On Tuesday, September 23, after the House had approved S.1315 the day before, the House voted on HR 6897. On a motion to suspend the rules (so that no amendments would be heard), the Filipino Veterans Equity Act (HR 6897) passed by a vote of 392 to 23. Among the 23 voting against the bill were 22 Republicans, including Rep. Buyer.

Filner explained that passage of his bill, together with passage of S.1315, was part of “an overall strategy that we hope will amount to the best for Filipino veterans to finally bring justice.” What was key to the strategy was that "S.1315" pass the House as well as a Filipino Veterans Equity Bill (HR 6897).

Because both bills passed the House, “the pressure now shifts to the conference committee” of House and Senate sponsors of S.1315, explained Ben de Guzman, executive director of the National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity.

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), the chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and chief sponsor of S.1315, and Rep. Bob Filner, chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and sponsor of HR 6897, will jointly preside over the conference committee that will craft a compromise bill that will be presented to the Senate and the House for a vote.

This high stakes game of political maneuvering is not for the faint of heart but this is the part of the dance that veterans believe will be the two steps forward.

Please contact your Senators ( and your House Representatives ( to urge them to vote for the Senate version of S.1315 when the compromise bill emerges from the conference committee. Folks, we’re almost there.

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