Benefits of new GI Bill are well worth the cost

You might have missed it, but President Bush signed into law a new GI Bill Monday, legislation he had vehemently opposed and threatened to veto up until two weeks ago. The president and other critics – including GOP presidential contender John McCain – had claimed the improved college benefits in the bill would be too costly and a disincentive for troops to re-enlist.

No joke. Those opponents wanted to hold veterans' benefits hostage to re-enlistment goals. We wish we could say they had a change of heart. But the White House relented to ensure passage of a $162 billion war funding package that included the bill. Veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate passed it.

The new GI Bill deserved passage on its own merits. It finally provides adequately for the education needs of veterans of today, and gives fair access to benefits to thousands of National Guard and Reserve members activated for duty. Veterans who have served at least three years of active duty since the 9-11 attacks will be eligible for a full four-year college education, including housing and a stipend for books.

The bill replaces a GI Bill, originally signed 64 years ago and reworked in 1984, that was woefully inadequate. Benefits covered less than half the cost of college.

Veterans groups are rightly praising the legislation for providing help and hope to the more than 1.6 million troops who have served since the terrorist attacks. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., noted aptly: “This bill properly provides a modern and fair educational benefit to address the needs of those who answered the call of duty to our country… often at great sacrifice.”

Sen. Webb, a Vietnam combat veteran, introduced these new GI benefits more than 18 months ago on his first day in office. It got bipartisan support, but critics tried to derail it. Sen. McCain opposed the bill, and along with Republicans Richard Burr of North Carolina and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina offered a less generous alternative. N.C. Sen. Elizabeth Dole also signed on as a sponsor of their legislation.

The Senate rejected the proposal, and all except Sen. McCain voted for the final bill. Sen. McCain was campaigning and didn't vote. His presumed Democratic rival Barack Obama did vote for the bill.

Sen. Webb's bill was the better bill. His efforts to get it passed deserve recognition. Unfortunately, President Bush signed the measure without a formal Rose Garden signing ceremony, and Sen. Webb wasn't even invited. No matter. The veterans say thanks. The rest of us should too.