In a time when discord rings loudly throughout Congress, the responsibility of mending the bridge between policy and the well-being of our nation’s veterans falls upon the newly elected House Speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La. His ascension to the speakership amidst a whirlwind of GOP squabbles doesn’t just mark a personal victory, but it should also be a fresh slate for him to act on legislation crucial for America’s veterans.
At the heart of veterans issues are two significant bills both introduced by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) respectively – the Major Richard Star Act and the Retired Pay Restoration Act, both of which aim to address the long-standing unfair offset between military retired pay and disability benefits. Bilirakis also served as former Speaker McCarthy’s veterans affairs advisor.
But Johnson’s wildly conservative credentials are well-etched, having opposed the sweeping toxic exposure bill for veterans last year, and the Pentagon’s abortion policy. However, his track record also shows a tinge of promise. Johnson has shown willingness to support veteran-centric legislation in the past, most notably co-sponsoring the Major Richard Star Act, an initiative highly applauded by veterans groups alongside the law’s 326 co-sponsors in the House and 70 in the Senate. And while both Georgia Senators Warnock and Ossoff cosponsored the MRSA, several Georgia representatives (Ferguson, Clyde, Collins, McCormick, Allen, Loudermilk, and Scott, A. to be precise) have yet to cosponsor it alongside their colleagues who did.
As Congress convenes nearing the end of its term, next to its fiscal agenda should be addressing the glaring injustice faced by over 50,000 combat-disabled veterans. The Major Richard Star Act and the Retired Pay Restoration Act, though differing in scope, converge on the common ground of rectifying the unjust offset that diminishes the retirement pay of veterans with service-connected disabilities. This is not a matter of political leverage, but a test of our national integrity, a direct reflection of our unity, and a show of gratitude towards those who have shielded us from our adversaries, often at the cost of their own well-being.
The Major Richard Star Act, co-sponsored by Speaker Johnson, aims to amend the disheartening reality where the current law reduces, dollar for dollar, the Department of Defense (DOD) retirement pay by the amount of Veterans Affairs (VA) compensation received by military retirees with less than 20 years of service, who were also forced to retire due to combat disabilities. This Act embodies not a call for undue favor or “double-dipping” but a step towards fulfilling a promise made to our veterans.
On the other hand, the Retired Pay Restoration Act increases the economic security for veterans with a disability rating of less than 50 percent and who are Chapter 61 retirees—those compelled to retire before completing 20 years of service due to service-related disabilities. It not only resonates with the ethos of fairness but aligns with the broader American value of providing for all of those who have provided us with an umbrella of security.
Now, as Speaker Johnson stands at the helm of the House, the narrative of his legacy will be partly scripted by his actions towards the betterment of our veterans. The pressing question is whether he will let the political quagmire engulf the chances of passing these monumental Acts or rise above to the call of duty and steer them to the floor for a vote.
Furthermore, the comparative analysis between the Major Richard Star Act and the Retired Pay Restoration Act elucidates a complementary rather than a conflicting one. They both strive for a common goal – to alleviate the financial strain on our veterans and uphold the nation’s promise to them. The collective passage of these Acts would not only signify a legislative triumph but a moral one.
The essence of this issue transcends the mere numbers; it’s about honoring a pledge to those who’ve unflinchingly stood on the frontlines for our liberty. The fiscal concerns, albethey valid, are beyond misplaced since they pale in comparison to the moral obligation we harbor towards our veterans. The funds rerouted towards rectifying this offset are not an expenditure but an investment in upholding our national honor.
As Speaker Johnson navigates turbulent waters of the present-day political landscape, his compass could be more pointed towards our veterans. The call to action reverberates through the also chaotic chambers of Congress, waiting for a response. Speaker Johnson, with the gavel in hand, should echo this call and lead the charge towards a legislative remedy that stands as a testament to our enduring gratitude and unwavering commitment to our nation’s veterans.
William J. Black, III, is a Georgia lawyer who is a combat-disabled retiree of the U.S. Air Force and was a 2021 Department of Defense Warrior Games Athlete.