Before approving a proposed budget blueprint this week, the Republican-dominated House Budget Committee blocked efforts to change a federal law that withholds monthly annuity payments from thousands of military widows and widowers.
It was one of 26 amendments, offered by committee Democrats, that the Republican majority rejected before Thursday's vote.
Most galling, said Kathy Prout, a military widow from Coronado, Calif., was the "no" vote and comments by U.S. Rep. Steve Womack of Rogers, the committee chairman.
Womack was a co-sponsor of a separate House bill aimed at repealing the federal law that takes money from military widows and widowers. Prout and others considered him an ally in their fight.
"He voted against and recommended other committee members do the same," Prout said.
Another "no" vote was U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican from Hot Springs.
Eleven Democrats and three Republicans supported the proposed change; 18 Republicans opposed it.
Republicans expressed sympathy for the widows before killing the amendment, which would help roughly 64,000 Americans who lost spouses due to service-connected causes.
Womack explained his opposition to his committee this way: "While I know our Democratic colleagues are sincere in their efforts [and] noble in their quest to change the policy, if an amendment such as this were to be adopted, as was the case in some previous amendments, it would distract from the critical overall objective of our budget and that's addressing the long-term drivers of America's deficits and debt and, again, that would be very unfortunate."
Before urging his colleagues to vote "no," Womack also portrayed the amendment as a threat to recent Republican tax cuts.
The tax cut act, signed into law by President Donald Trump in December, included tax cuts totaling $2.3 trillion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
"The changes that are offered would also, possibly, include changes to the tax law that we've already articulated on a number of occasions is working for the American people right now. And to start chipping away at some of the provisions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act provisions would be, potentially, destructive, or at least counterproductive," Womack said.
In reply, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., argued that the amount of money needed to help the widows was "minuscule" compared with the huge cuts Republicans had championed.
Democrats estimated that their amendment would cost the government $5.3 billion over the next decade. The widows' aid would be generated, they said, "by partially reversing the Republican tax giveaways for the wealthy and corporations enacted in" the December 2017 tax law.
Through a Facebook page, Prout has organized dozens of military widows to lobby for repeal of the federal law popularly known as the "Widow's Tax."
"The moral compass has gone askew," she said after the committee's vote. "They could fix this."
Budget blueprint from House Budget CommitteeView
The federal law targeted by the repeal amendment is officially titled the "DIC Offset," part of 10 U.S. Code 1451.
It applies only to surviving spouses of military service members who died in action, or later from service-caused illnesses.
The federal government pays those survivors a death compensation benefit, but won't let them also collect insurance annuities their military spouses paid for while alive.
The federal law costs the typical widow about $7,300 per year in income. Other federal employees' survivors are permitted to collect both benefits.
The amendment called for the repeal of the "Survivor Benefit Plan/Dependency and Indemnity Compensation Offset." It increased "budget authority and outlays ... to ensure all surviving military spouses receive full survivor annuities under the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) without any reduction to offset the receipt of veterans Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC)."
Prout said widows who watched the vote on their computers at home Thursday were angry and frustrated. Some members of her group have lobbied Congress for almost 20 years, and watched bills fail every session.
Womack's comment that "we were a distraction was really insulting," Prout said. "How can he say that about those who have sacrificed?"
Legislation to change the law has been introduced in the House and Senate and is backed by the entire Arkansas congressional delegation.
The House version, the Military Surviving Spouses Equity Act, has 267 sponsors. The Senate version, the Military Widows' Tax Elimination Act of 2017, is backed by 48 members.
House Budget Committee spokesman Claire Burghoff said Womack, the chairman, wants to see the law changed.
"Congressman Womack is a veteran. He supports veterans and he's a co-sponsor of legislation that does this very thing," Burghoff said.
Efforts to change the law, via the budget amendment, would violate House rules, she added.
Prout said both political parties over the years have disappointed her widows group.
"Every party is guilty. Right now it just happens to be the Republicans. Obama promised to fix it if elected president. Eight years later, nada," Prout said. "Trump could fix it. He could put it in his budget and be the one to slay the dragon. But he hasn't done that."
Democrats demanded roll call votes on the widows' amendment as well as the other 25 amendments they introduced.
They'll be looking to capitalize on those issues in the midterm elections, Duke University political science professor David W. Rohde said.
"What the Democrats are looking for are votes that they can try to hang around the neck of Republicans in the next five months," he said.
In competitive races, the votes could be campaign commercial fodder, he said.
"There'll be ads in their districts about 'Member X voted against veterans' widows' and things like that," he said. "They're going to be looking for every piece of ammunition that they can get."
Womack's Democratic opponent, Josh Mahony of Fayetteville, said Friday that he would've supported the amendment helping widows.
The budget resolution, which the committee passed Thursday evening, shortchanges widows and harms millions of Americans who are struggling to get by, he said.
"This is robbing from working Americans to take care of our corporations and our wealthiest," Mahony said. "Working Americans can only sustain so much and they need somebody to have their backs, and Steve Womack does not."
A Section on 06/23/2018
Print Headline: Womack's 'no' vote vexes military widow