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How Congress Can End the Military’s Signing Bonus Travesty

Thousands of veterans are being unjustly squeezed by the Pentagon. Congress can stop it—unless silly budget politics get in the way.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The government rarely claws back the bonuses of corporate executives when their companies rip off the public. But the Department of Defense has been pushing thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans to the brink of financial ruin by demanding they return bonuses they were offered for re-enlisting.

As the Los Angeles Times first reported over the weekend, ex-soldiers have mortgaged homes, had their wages garnished, and been subject to aggressive debt collection for years after auditors determined that their re-enlistment bonuses were improperly granted a decade ago. Members of Congress in both parties are up in arms, and they should be. Veterans are paying the price for a mistake made by their superiors to entice them to stay in the military.

Unfortunately for the vets, they need the assistance of Congress to rectify this outrage. And while everyone in Washington will preen about how they “will do whatever it takes to support our brave men and women in uniform,” politics—budget politics, in particular—might get in the way.

Starting in 2006, when the Defense Department desperately needed bodies to deploy in Iraq and Afghanistan, it allowed National Guard units to extend re-enlistment bonuses for specialized recruits who could fill high-demand positions. The money was handed out up-front, and was designated for intelligence personnel or certain non-commissioned officers serving in foreign wars.

Faced with pressure to keep enrollments up, every state’s Guard offered these bonuses. But the Times focused on California’s National Guard, which was quite generous. A 2010 investigation had found considerable overpayments of bonuses and forgiveness of student loans, often given to soldiers who should not have qualified for them. In 2012, the oversight manager of the bonus program, Master Sergeant Toni Jaffe, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for filing $15.2 million in false bonus claims to the Pentagon.

What we’ve just learned is that the military has asked a lot of Guard members for those bonuses back. The Times reported that auditors identified 9,700 California National Guard members who received overpayments. (On Tuesday, the Pentagon said that the number it asked to repay was lower, 6,500 max). The bonuses frequently topped $15,000, and since they were given out years ago, the money’s long since been spent—so the former soldiers must scramble to find the funds, plus interest. For good measure, the Pentagon even tacked on a 1 percent processing fee.

The stories are tragic. Christopher Van Meter, a Purple Heart recipient, had to take out a mortgage on his house to give back the $46,000 in bonuses and student-loan forgiveness he received for re-enlisting. Susan Haley, an intelligence specialist who owes $20,500, had her Guard wages garnished and expects to default on the next $650 monthly payment. Soldiers who’ve appealed to the Defense Department for relief say they’ve been rejected; meanwhile, any delays lead to additional interest and fees on the debt. And as long as the debt remains active, of course, the veterans have trouble qualifying for credit.

Almost no member of the California National Guard is accused of engaging in any wrongdoing to receive their bonus. Matthew Beevers, the California Guard’s deputy adjutant general, told The New York Times that “about 100 people” may have committed fraud, out of 35,000 records audited. So mostly innocent soldiers who were induced into staying in the Guard—and putting themselves in harm’s way—are now being punished for taking what they were offered.

Beevers maintained that the California Guard cannot remedy the situation. “We’d be more than happy to absolve these people of their debts,” he told Politico. “We just can’t do it. We’d be breaking the law.” Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein think there’s a way, though: They have asked the Defense Department to use its authority to determine that the repayments “would be against equity and good conscience” or “contrary to the best interests of the United States.”

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter responded, ordering the Pentagon to halt the repayment demands “as soon as it’s practical.” By January 1, he said, the department will streamline the process for veterans—Carter puts the number who’ve been asked to repay at 2,000—to request debt relief. That doesn’t mean that they’ll get it, though, or that the debts will be waived. And it doesn’t mean that veterans who’ve already made repayments will be reimbursed for the Pentagon’s mistake. That would take an act of Congress.

Congress reportedly knew about this mess for a couple years before it hit the media; California National Guard officials say they called for action in 2014, though some members dispute that. But now that it’s public, politicians are running to the microphones to express outrage. The highest-ranking House members from California, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, called the debt collection disgraceful and urged a legislative fix. The House Oversight Committee is now investigating what Speaker Paul Ryan called “bureaucratic bungling.” Others are calling for waiving the debs altogether.

The solution could be as simple as putting a time limit on recouping of unauthorized military bonus payments from the affected period of 2006 to 2008. But there is a hitch: Congress is operating under “paygo” (pay as you go), a system that forces any new legislation to find a funding source. Because forgiving these overpayments would cost the government money, Congress would have to waive the paygo rules or find some other cut—from anywhere, not solely the defense budget, which Congress typically leaves sacrosanct—to offset the debt forgiveness.

They should clearly do the former—and do it as soon as Congress returns from its election recess. First of all, the money we’re talking about is big for these soldiers, but barely a drop in the federal government’s bucket. While the California National Guard wasn’t the only state force that offered too-generous bonuses for re-enlistment, the 2010 report estimated just $100 million in total overpayments from the re-enlistment program. (The National Guard said it was actually closer to $70 million.) Even at $100 million, that would add up to about .0066 percent of the $1.066 trillion federal budget appropriation for 2017. It’s nothing. Last year, Congress passed a $680 billion package of tax cuts, mostly for corporations. Who would extend this suffering for veterans over a matter of $100 million?

But fiscal conservatives are given to warning of slippery slopes and passing on debt to children and grandchildren. House Republicans balked at finding money to combat the Zika virus for months. They dawdled for two years on emergency spending for the Flint water scandal and the opioid crisis. Now here comes the cleanest example of a mistake that the government should be forced to eat. Will we hear the same cries of fiscal probity again?

We already are, and not just from Republicans. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on Tuesday that President Obama would not yet support waiving the veterans’ debt; he only wants to expedite the appeals process. That’s an appalling but completely predictable position; feigned support for vets runs up, as usual, against budget posturing.

But no federal agency should have to pay the price for this absurdity with a budget cut—except maybe the Pentagon itself. The Department of Defense failed to monitor Guard units when they offered the bonuses, after all, and failed to recognize the severe hardship veterans would face if asked to return the money. If the DOD has to build a couple fewer planes while being barred from harassing veterans over their bonuses, so be it. But really, the government should just recognize this mistake, take the loss, and move on.

If these elected officials really want to end the disgrace of impoverishing men and women who served America overseas, they can introduce a bill that ends it, period, without “finding” the $100 million to cover the error from somewhere else. This is a rare instance when everyone across the political spectrum agrees: It is immoral to squeeze back overpayments from veterans who simply received what they were promised. The only thing that can slow down a fair resolution is silly budget politics.

This article has been updated.