PUBLIC SAFETY EMPLOYER-EMPLOYEE COOPERATION ACT OF 2007 -- (Senate - May 14, 2008)
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Mr. GRAHAM. Let's talk about the policy and then the politics. Everything seems to be in the case of politics. Most Members of the body would like to pass some legislation this year that would improve GI benefits for those who serve and leave and for those who continue to serve. Putting this bill, the Webb bill, on the supplemental emergency funding for the war, a mandatory entitlement program put on a supplemental emergency spending bill for the war is not the way to go. Having a supplemental involving spending for the war that can't be amended is not the way to go. Putting the bill on the firefighter-police officer legislation is not the way to go, but it is the only way I had to go. I have sat down with Senator Webb and his staff. I hope we can find common ground. I have never doubted the desire of Senators Webb or Warner to increase the benefit. Senator Webb's service to the country has been extraordinary in combat, as Secretary of the Navy, as has Senator Warner's. Obviously, they have a desire and some expertise in this area to upgrade basic GI benefits. I share that desire and hope this body can do something necessary.
But as Senator Kyl said, quite frankly, I don't agree with their approach. The need is there, but the first thing all of us in this body should do is not compound a problem our current forces have, and that is retention. In the name of trying to help recruit people to the military, you don't create a benefit that the Congressional Budget Office and the Pentagon say will hurt retention. It makes perfect sense to me that the approach of Senators Webb and Warner will hurt retention. It is $50-something billion of new spending, and it is all geared to the people who leave the military after 3 years. As Senator Kyl indicated, this is a different war. Unless we start drafting people, which nobody appears to want, including me, we need to let those who serve and continue to serve know how much we appreciate what they are doing and give them incentives to stay around because every person who will stay in the military to make it a career is a godsend to this country because we are being defended by volunteers.
So how about this idea? Increase the basic benefit, as Senators Warner and Webb have proposed but do it in a way that makes the most sense for the entire force. The current amount of money available to someone who leaves the military after 3 years of service to go to college is $1,100 a month. That used to be the average cost of a State college tuition, including room and board. It is now up to $1,500 a month as an average cost. What we have done in our approach is raise the benefit to $1,500, which is the average cost of a State college, room and board. To me, that is a worthy goal for the Nation to pursue.
Senators Webb and Warner have a new formula, a new way of delivering benefits that misses the mark. Instead of paying every GI who leaves the service $1,500 a month, and under our bill $1,000 a year for books and fees, what Senator Webb proposes is that you would look at the school, the highest State school, the highest State institution in terms of tuition in each State, and the GI would receive the amount of money that would pay for that school. So in Michigan, the most expensive State school is $13,000. In South Carolina, it is $5,000 or $6,000. So based on where you live, you could have a disparity in how much benefits come to the veteran. I don't think that is the way to go.
What we have tried to do is make the benefit that exists today reflect the reality of today for those who leave.
If somebody wants to go to Harvard or Yale, what we do under the bill is we tell the institution, if you will forgive 25 percent of the difference between what the Government pays and the tuition, we will put an extra thousand on the table. If you will forgive 50 percent of the indebtedness, we will put more money on the table. If you will forgive the entire indebtedness, I think we would go up to like $3,000, maybe $3,500 a month. That way the institution can get over $40,000, and the veteran can go to that school without any debt. So we have a program in the bill to try to get institutions on the higher end, private schools, to work with veterans to get them through their institutions and put more money on the table.
But the big point I am trying to make is, under our approach, we have a component not found in the Webb bill that the country needs. Right now the GI benefits that are earned after 3 years of service under the Webb approach, $55 billion is spent on that population, not one penny of additional incentive to stay around. Do you know what America needs? We need to take care of those who serve and leave because they have done the country a great service. But as a nation, we need to desperately try to retain people who are willing to serve longer. So what do we do? Senator Burr and myself, Senator McCain, we have listened to the troops. What do the troops want? What do those in uniform want from the GI benefit reform? They would like to transfer their benefits to their spouse or their children.
Under our approach, if you stay 6 years, that $1,500-a-month benefit, that $1,000-a-year payment for books and fees, 50 percent of it can be transferred to a spouse or child. That would revolutionize the way this benefit package is being used today. Fifty percent of the people eligible for GI benefits in today's world never use them. If you could transfer those benefits, it would be a higher utilization, and the benefit would be to the family members of the military member, the ones they love and care about the most. If you will stay in 12 years, at the 12-year point under our bill, the benefit goes from $1,500 a month to $2,000 a month, and you can transfer all of it.
Now, what does that mean? That means if you will continue to serve our country, at the 12-year point you do not have to worry about your kids' ability to go to college anymore. What does that mean? That means your retirement pay has more value. A lot of people are getting out of the military at the 8- and 10-year point because they have a couple kids and they wonder: Can I send them to college on a military salary? Wouldn't it be wonderful to check that block and say: You can stay in the military, get your 20 years, get your retirement, and also have a benefit to pay for your kids' college that will not come out of your retired pay? This will revolutionize retention.
The CBO says for every $10,000 of educational benefit increase, you lose a percent in retention. Under the Webb approach, we would lose 8 to 9 percent a year in retention, at a time we need to retain more.
Under our approach, not only are we going to give more money to those who serve and leave--a very generous benefit--we are also going to put money on the table for the first time in the history of the GI program to reward those who stay. Most people who serve 20 years are going to come out with a college degree they earned in the military without ever using their benefits. The ability to transfer the benefit to a family member is enormous. Again, it will allow the retired pay--of those who go to 20 years--to have much more bang for the buck. They will have their college paid for.
When I talk to people in the Guard and Reserve and Active Forces, they tell me they would love to have the ability to transfer their GI benefits once they get their degree to a spouse or a child.
It would help retention. It would help families. It is, in my opinion, the best bang for the taxpayer buck.
Now, where are we going to go? Here is what is going to happen.
Madam President, how much time is left?
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator has 3 minutes more before his 2-minute warning. The Senator has 5 minutes.
Mr. GRAHAM. Madam President, thank you.
We have a choice to make as a body. We can find some middle ground and pass a bill that 100 people would vote for or we can put the Webb amendment on the supplemental in its current form without any changes, table my bill, and say: Go off in the corner and be quiet. Well, that ``ain't'' going to happen. I am not going to be quiet. I am going to urge the President to veto the Webb bill in its current form because no matter how well-intended it is, it will hurt retention. It will hurt retention at a time, as a nation, when we need to enhance retention.
I have a different approach, and I think it makes sense. But I am willing to meet people in the middle. I am not going to be put in a box of having to vote no and be accused of not caring. Well, I have another approach. I think it serves the country well. I am willing to meet in the middle. I hope we can find some middle ground. At the end of the day, helping veterans and rewarding those who serve is a shared value--not a Democratic value. It is a shared value by all Americans: Republicans, Independents, and Democrats.
Two things are important to the American people at a time of national crisis, at a time of a two-front war. Let's come together and help those who are willing to put on the uniform. Count me in for increasing the benefits for those who serve 3 years and leave. You have done your country a great service. I want to make sure you have money to go to college, that you are well rewarded for your service.
But work with me to do something for those who continue to serve. Reward them. That has never been done before in the GI bill. It is time for the GI bill to change. It is time to have money on the table to reward those families and military members who stay around and keep going back and keep fighting. If you want to help the military, the men and women in uniform who decide to make this a career, allow their benefits to be transferred to their loved ones, allow military members who serve for 12 years and beyond a chance to send their kids to college with GI benefits and not have to use their retirement.
So I look forward to this debate. It is going to be a chance to do some good or it is going to be politics as usual. Well, that is a decision we are all going to have to make. I hope we can do the country some good. To me, the best thing we can do for the country and for those men and women who serve--and continue to serve--is to do something new, something long overdue and new; that is, to allow them to transfer their benefits to their family members. That will help retention. It will reward those families who sacrifice alongside the servicemember. I have talked with enough family members to know how much this would change and help improve family life in the military.
With that, Madam President, I yield the floor.
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