Friday, March 6, 2009

Filipinos Need No Enemies

Rep. Steve Austria (R-Ohio), the lone Filipino American member of the US Congress, told the vast TV viewing audience of ABS-CBN’s Balitang America that he voted against the stimulus bill even though it would allocate $198-M for Filipino WW II veterans because, he said, the money would not go towards stimulating the weak US economy. Instead, Austria said, he wanted a “stand alone” bill that would allot lump sums to Filipino veterans.

The Filipino veterans (FilVets) know all about "stand alone" bills because they have been down that road many times before. When Austria's party controlled the US Congress, the Republican chair of the House Veterans Committee (Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana) refused to even hold a hearing of his committee to consider the FilVets claim.

With the Democrats in control of Congress last year, Filipino veterans finally succeeded in getting both Houses of Congress to hold hearings on the FilVets bill and to endorse the bills. The US Senate passed its bill by a 96-1 vote but only after it had been folded in with other veterans issue in an omnibus veterans bill (S. 1315) crafted by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), chair of the Senate Veterans Committee.

But even that omnibus bill could not be approved by the House until the Filipino veterans provision was excised from it. The only hope in November of 2008 was for the Filipino veterans provision to be included in the Senate-House conference committee compromise. But Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) killed off any hope of that by rejecting the request of Sen. Akaka for a unanimous vote to cut off debate and vote on its inclusion.

Fortunately, all was not lost because Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, somehow managed to include in the appropriations bill for the US military a provision allocating $198-M to Filipino WW II veterans which was signed into law in November of 2008. All that was needed was for a bill authorizing the release of those funds to be passed.

When the stimulus bill was introduced in the House this year, Rep. Bob Filner (D-California) - the author of the bill that would allocate lump sum payments of $15,000 each to Filipino veterans who were US citizens and $9,000 each to those vets who were not - lobbied the Democratic leadership in the House to include language authorizing the release of those funds. But his efforts were rebuffed because House Democrats feared that it would not pass the Senate if it included a FilVets provision that was not connected to stimulating the US economy.

The fate of the veterans was then left to Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and long-time champion of Filipino veterans equity.

In an act of incredible leadership and guts, Sen. Inouye included the Filipino veterans provision in the bill as Section 1002 of Title X. During the Senate debate on this issue on February 9, 2009, Sen. Inouye defended the FilVets provision against attacks from the two Republican senators from Arizona, Sen. John McCain and Sen. John Kyl, who not unexpectedly charged that it had nothing to do with stimulating the US economy and should be removed. Sen. Inouye agreed but nonetheless insisted that it should be included because it was a matter of “honor”.

[An unsung heroine of the entire Filipino veterans’ struggle over the last 15 years is Marie Blanco, a long-time aide of Sen. Inouye, who has been as involved as anyone in the background and as responsible as anyone in the foreground in securing benefits for Filipino WW II veterans.]

Sen. Inouye succeeded in winning over the critics and keeping the FilVets provision intact in the Senate and later in the Senate-House compromise bill that was signed into law by Pres. Barack Obama on February 17, 2009.

Instead of cheering the infusion of more than $100-M of veterans benefits to the Philippine economy, the bill was attacked by politicians and political commentators like Prof. Winnie Monsod, former head of the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) under Pres. Cory Aquino.

In her February 24, 2009 commentary that appeared on her daily talk show, Prof. Monsod blasted the bill as “the latest indignity heaped on Filipino Veterans” (the actual title of her broadside). She recounted the “shameful and disgraceful” history of the Rescission Act of 1946 and criticized the bill for being discriminatory in that “non-US citizens will get only 60% of what US citizens would be getting.”

What Monsod and other Philippine critics fail to understand is that even the staunchest Republican opponents of the Filipino veterans bill were willing to support it if only US citizen Filipino WW II veterans received benefits under it. They opposed it because it would be a stimulus bill for the Philippine economy, not the US economy.

Monsod charged that “the Filipino veterans of WWII who served the United States when the United States needed it most, are expected to be grateful for this $198 million one-time package rather than being given the $100 million a year package that they in all fairness deserve.”

The “package” that Monsod referred to was the “stand alone” Filipino veterans equity bill sponsored by Rep. Bob Filner which provided $900 a month to US citizens and $300 a month to Philippine citizens. The bill she supported was also discriminatory but how could the 33.33% of the Filner bill be better than the 60% of the bill that was passed?

When Winnie Monsod and I were in our youth in the Philippines, it was commonly believed that the US government was a monolithic entity with everyone in the government thinking and acting in concert. After having lived in the US for almost four decades, I understand the political dynamics of the US government. I know, for example, that there are Republicans who believe that the US should be concerned primarily with national security issues and there are Democrats who believe that the US should be primarily concerned with justice and honor issues.

After 40 years, however, Prof. Monsod still clings to the notion of a US government that acts as a monolith unwilling to give the proper amount of funds to the Filipino veterans “because they are too busy spending $435 million a day, which is the estimated cost of prosecuting the Iraq war.” They?

Prof. Monsod ends her commentary with this swipe: “With friends like the United States government, the Filipinos need no enemies.” With this slogan, good luck to those who want to lobby the US Congress for more benefits for Filipino veterans.

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