The GI Bill: a living, breathing law

In our country’s history, few laws have had the impact that the Montgomery GI Bill did. Originally titled the "Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944" and June 22 celebrating its 69th birthday, the legislation has democratized higher education, forged a middle class and paved the way for a suburban lifestyle that has become synonymous with the American Dream.

No one can claim that they foresaw the enormous societal successes that have stemmed from the novel idea of giving veterans free access to education. However, The American Legion can say that it has, as an organization, always been an advocate for and proponent of generous education benefits for the men and women who have served our country – even when such a position wasn’t particularly popular. That commitment started in rather dramatic fashion in the early 1940s, when passage of the original GI Bill legislation hinged on a single senator’s vote, and has continued eight decades through the modern era of veterans education benefits.

Setting a course for history

Our country’s citizens generally take pride in their military and respect those who serve in it – even if they disagree with the political motivations for war. This, however, is only a recent development in our nation’s collective conscience.

In the wake of the war that divided our nation, Civil War veterans drew resentment from lawmakers and politicians with the hefty bill that they drove up from receiving their pensions. By the end of 1883, an estimated $150 million was being paid out annually to around 1 million Civil War veterans – out of 2.2 million total. This number looks miniscule by today’s standards of spending and inflation, but in 1883 this accounted for nearly half of the United States’ $385.6 million budget.

World War I veterans bore the brunt of the backlash from this spending. They were originally only discharged with $60 and didn’t receive their $700 bonus until 1936 – after two presidential vetoes had previously dashed disbursement of their bonus payments. World War I veterans had to assemble and march on Washington – eventually being routed by troops under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur – before being paid what they were owed.

Determined to not let later generations of veterans experience similar injustices, the same World War I veterans authored and fought for passage of a sweeping "omnibus" style bill that provided veterans with access to education and home loans. This seemed like the ideal alternative to the deferred compensation scheme that caused previous veterans so much grief. Weary of anything that resembled New Deal-style legislation, detractors criticized the proposed legislation as too broad and overwritten, predicting that it would break the country’s bank like payouts to Civil War veterans did years prior.

Proponents fought hard against those notions. The most outspoken among them were dignitaries and representatives from The American Legion. In November 1943, The American Legion formed a committee to develop a "master plan" for deciding how to "repay" veterans of World War II and beyond for their service. Subsequently, Harry W. Colmery, a Legion national commander from 1936-1937, wrote the actual legislation of the GI Bill in longhand at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel in January of 1944. Colmery’s original draft, which was based on input from a Legion planning committee, was announced by the Legion on Jan. 9. It was introduced as a bill in the House on Jan. 10 with an accompanying endorsement by the Legion that read:

"The American Legion proposed this bill first because we believed it to be the duty, the responsibility and the desire of our grateful people to see to it that those who served actively in the armed forces in this war should not be penalized as a result of war service, but also that upon their return, they should be aided in reaching that position which they might normally have expected had the war not interrupted their careers."

The accompanying Senate bill had Legion roots as well. World War I veteran Bennett Champ Clark, a co-founder of The American Legion, was the principal author and sponsor of the Senate version of the GI Bill of Rights. Bennett considered the legislation to be his greatest achievement in a decorated military and political career.

As legend has it, the bill became ensnared in a political turf war. The law’s final passage hinged on a 3-3 deadlock on the House side of the House-Senate conference of 1944. The deciding vote was Rep. John Gibson from Georgia. He was unable to attend the conference because he was at home recovering from an illness. When his proxy refused to vote in the bill’s favor, Gibson was famously swept from his home in the middle of the night by a U.S. Army vehicle, which drove 200 miles to a Jacksonville, Fla., airport. A specially cleared Eastern Airlines plane flew Gibson into Washington, D.C., where he arrived at 6:37 a.m. to cast the deciding vote at 10 a.m.

The legislation was signed into law on June 22 by President Roosevelt, in the company of many Legionnaires who were intimately involved in all aspects of it. The final GI Bill provided five chief benefits to servicemembers: education and training, VA loan guaranty, unemployment pay of $20 a week for 52 weeks, job-finding assistance and top priority for building materials for VA hospitals.

The result was a turning point in our society. Before World War II, college and homeownership were accessible only to society’s upper crust. After World War II, the floodgates opened to them. VA estimates that veterans accounted for 49 percent of all college admissions in 1947; these are all individuals who would have flooded the job market had there been no GI Bill. VA also estimates that it backed nearly 2.4 million home loans for veterans from 1944 to 1952; these are all individuals who are responsible for creating a thriving middle class.

Ushering in a new era

As times changed and tuition costs began rising, The American Legion pushed all of its organizational might behind getting a "new GI Bill" passed. In the 1990s, it fought for a "Gulf War GI Bill," which would have updated the Montgomery GI Bill to allow it to keep up with rising tuition costs. This plea fell on deaf ears, and it wasn’t until the next decade that lawmakers and the general public caught up to the sentiment.

The Legion first officially recognized the growing disparity between hiking tuition costs and inadequate benefits at its national convention in 2002, when the organization’s National Executive Committee passed five resolutions that specifically targeted changes that needed to be made to the GI Bill. The most ambitious among them was Resolution 267, which accurately predicted that GI Bill benefits were becoming less effective and lagging behind aid provided by programs such as Americorps and Pell Grants. It resolved, among other things, that the dollar amount of the entitlement be indexed annually to the average cost of education, that a monthly tax-free subsistence be indexed and that the current military payroll deduction of $1,200 ("the buy-in") be terminated for those who wish to participate. These notions are reflected in current GI Bill legislation.

Following 9/11, lawmakers started to heed the Legion’s call for a better GI Bill. The Legion spent more than four years working with legislators to draft a 21st century GI Bill that would fairly serve the educational interests of the many men and women who went overseas. The result was the "Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act" – a meaningful education benefit that proved the GI Bill will mature as our veterans’ needs change. The Post-9/11 GI Bill, as it has come to be known, passed the Senate and House in June of 2008 and was signed in to law by President Bush later that month.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect in August 2009. It provides a full 36 months of tuition payments to any veteran who has at least 90 days aggregate service after Sept. 10, 2001. The year before its passage, veterans using the Montgomery GI Bill were only receiving an average of $6,000 a year – an amount that wouldn’t even cover half a year’s tuition at some of the nation’s lowest-cost public schools. The Post-9/11 GI Bill also encompasses reservists and Guardsmen, some of whom were previously using education benefits that barely covered the cost of getting to and from campus.

Importantly, the new GI Bill also was extended to cover costs that go beyond tuition payments. It gives veterans a monthly housing allowance, an annual book stipend and access to "rural benefit pay" that covers relocation expenses for veterans who are moving from a rural area to attend college. The legislation also includes an option for veterans who wish to pass their benefits off to dependants.

Servicemembers have taken advantage of the legislation in masses, as VA estimates that between 600,000 and 700,000 individuals have used the Post-9/11 GI Bill since it became law in 2009. As drawdowns commence overseas, those numbers are only expected to grow.

A ‘living law’

Since its passage in the 1940s, many historians and social commentators have described the GI Bill as a "living law" that will grow and mature as society changes and academia evolves. This has proven prescient throughout the course of history, even with the Post-9/11 GI Bill, as updates and changes to it have been made in the past few years.

In December 2010, Congress passed the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Improvements Act of 2010. Often referred to as "GI Bill 2.0," the legislation made benefits more accessible to Guardsmen and reservists, gave a living stipend to online class-takers and created a national cap of $17,500 annual tuition for students attending private universities; VA previously only paid out private university tuition commensurate to the veteran’s highest-cost in-state public university. Notably, the expansion also included benefit coverage for veterans who pursue vocational training and certification – an addition the Legion had been lobbying for since the Post-9/11 GI Bill’s passage.

Currently, the 113th Congress is mulling further changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill in the form of the GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act, which would require state schools to charge in-state tuition rates to all veterans regardless of their state of residency. The Legion fully supports the bill and has taken the lead on fighting for its passage in both chambers of Congress.

The Legion will remain vigilant and receptive to any other future changes that might need to be made to the Post-9/11 GI Bill as society grows and the landscape of higher education changes. As a longtime overseer and advocate for the GI Bill and all veterans education benefits, the Legion will ensure that the GI Bill remains a living, breathing law.