No money to pay survivor benefits

By Tom Philpott: Military update

It can be a frustrating time of year for 54,000 military widows who see their Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) payments wiped out or reduced by the monthly amount they receive in Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

As it has done routinely in recent years, the Senate last week again approved, by voice vote, an amendment from Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to end this unpopular SBP-DIC offset.

But as in years past, the Senate hasn’t set aside money to pay full SBP to these surviving spouses. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost at $6.6 billion over the next 10 years.

Lawmakers say they are handcuffed by a “pay-as-you-go” budget law that requires any new federal entitlements be paid for with a matching reduction in other “mandatory spending” or entitlement program.

So, barring a legislative miracle, Nelson’s amendment will be tossed out again when House-Senate conferees meet later this year to iron out differences in separate versions of the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill.

The Military Coalition, a consortium of 34 military associations and veterans’ service organizations, made eliminating the SBP-DIC offset a legislative priority this year. But Steve Strobridge, co-chair of the coalition, said the armed services committees have a tough time finding spending offsets within the defense budget to raise SBP payments.

So the coalition intends to press House and Senate leaders hard in the coming months either to find offsets elsewhere in the federal budget or to declare the predicament of these widows worthy of an emergency exemption from the “pay-as-you-go” budget rule.

“We always get the same arguments that ‘We can’t afford to do it’ or ‘We can’t find the mandatory spending offsets’ (given) other pressing needs that are a lot more money, from (economic) stimulus packages to the (new) GI Bill last year. Now they’re talking about fixing the Medicare payment issue by declaring it an emergency and waiving the (pay-as-you-go) rule. That’s $250 billion to $300 billion,” Strobridge said.

“Well, if we can do it for hundreds of billions of dollars in other programs, then we just don’t buy that we can’t do the same thing for $6 billion for military widows.”

That’s the argument congressional leaders will hear.

“It’s had to tell how optimistic to be,” said Strobridge, given the legislative history on this issue. But he noted that Democratic leaders unveiled a series of legislative goals in 2005 for service members, veterans and their families called the new “GI Bill of Rights for the 21st Century.”

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: