Spouses' benefit fix gains in House bill, but defense-measure clashes a snag

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth from Kentucky is shown at the Capitol in this file photo.
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth from Kentucky is shown at the Capitol in this file photo.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. House members on Friday voted to allow 65,000 military spouses, most of them widows, to collect the full insurance annuity benefits their spouses paid for, but federal law denies them.

The language was included in the House's version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed 220-197.

No Republicans voted for the measure, which reflected lower defense spending levels than those contained in the Senate version of the bill.

Increasing the benefits for widows and widowers would cost an estimated $5.7 billion over the next decade.

Now the provision will go to a conference committee, composed of House and Senate members, to decide whether the language ends up in the final defense authorization act.

The Senate version of the legislation, an annual measure that sets U.S. military funding levels, didn't include the issue that military widows and veterans groups have promoted for at least 20 years.

"I'm pretty happy now. But it will take a lot of work from 65,000 widows to convince the Senate and House that this needs to stay" in the conference committee's compromise, said Linda Moore-Duncan of Fairfield Bay, who calls dozens of congressional offices about the issue every month.

Her husband, retired Chief Master Sgt. William Duncan Jr., died in 2007 from cancers caused by his Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam.

Even though he signed up at retirement in 1990 for the military's Survivor Benefit Plan for his wife, and paid into it monthly, she didn't learn until his death about the federal law that doesn't let her collect it.

The DIC Offset federal law requires surviving spouses who collect Veterans Affairs benefits to forfeit most or all of the Defense Department Survivor Benefit Plan annuity payments.

"That's a real shock to learn when you've been paying into that for years," Moore-Duncan said.

Organizers of military widows groups said Friday that they were cheered to see the issue for the first time included in the defense authorization act.

"We finally have a chance of getting it passed," said Kathy Prout, an organizer of the Military Widows: SBP-DIC Offset group that has a page on Facebook and encourages lobbying by its members. "I hope the conference committee keeps it included in the final defense budget. We have more work to do."

An attempt to add the "widow's tax" language to the Senate version of the defense bill stalled after encountering Republican opposition.

Candace Wheeler, senior adviser for policy and legislation for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, said Friday's vote is a tremendous step forward.

"I've been a military family advocate for many, many years and worked this issue and I have never seen it [reach] the place where it is now," she said Friday.

Democrats portrayed Friday's vote as a major victory for opponents of the widow's tax.

Not a tax at all, federal law 10 U.S. Code 1451 (c)(2) bars military survivors from collecting most of the paid-for annuities they and their spouses counted on.

In 2008, lawmakers created a Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance, enabling these widows to collect a fraction ($310 per month in 2018) of the money that would otherwise be offset. Attempts continue to eliminate the offset.

On Friday, House Republicans accused Democrats of undermining bipartisan efforts to end the DIC Offset by attaching it to broader legislation that the party strongly opposes in its current form.

Support for eliminating the DIC Offset is broad and bipartisan -- at least on paper.

A House bill addressing the issue has 365 co-sponsors, including all four members from Arkansas, according to Congress.gov. A similar bill in the Senate has 75 co-sponsors, including both senators from Arkansas.

Yet efforts, thus far, to advance those stand-alone bills have failed.

The lead Democrat sponsoring HR553 -- the Military Surviving Spouses Equity Act -- said Friday's vote moves Congress a step closer to eliminating the widow's tax.

"Our nation made promises to the surviving spouses of fallen service members, and it is among our highest moral responsibilities to see those promises honored," said U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., in a written statement. "For far too long, Congress has failed to do what's right and keep our word to our heroes and their families. Today, the House finally sent a clear message to those families: we value your sacrifice; we value the heroism of your loved ones."

But the stand-alone bill's original sponsor, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., accused Democrats of sabotaging his bill by tying it to legislation containing what he portrayed as poison pills.

"They killed it," he said. "You're not helping it by putting it into a partisan bill. It was supposed to be a nonpartisan bill, a bipartisan bill."

Under House rules adopted earlier this year, bills co-sponsored by 290 or more members were supposed to be fast-tracked, Wilson said. That never happened with the widow's tax legislation, despite its 365 co-sponsors, Wilson added.

In an interview Friday, House Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should allow an up-or-down vote on the widow's tax legislation -- stripped of other unrelated matters.

"It's shameful, shameful, what Speaker Pelosi did to change the rules of the House," he said.

The solution, he added, is simple.

"Bring it up as a stand-alone bill. It'll pass with an overwhelming majority, very bipartisan, and ultimately get to the president's desk, and solve a real problem for women and men who are the survivors of our men and women in uniform," he added.

Henry Connelly, a Pelosi spokesman, said Republicans had ample opportunity to fix the problem when they controlled both houses of Congress.

"It's a shame that fixing the widow's tax wasn't enough of a priority for Whip Scalise to vote for as part of a defense bill with a pay raise for our heroes in uniform, and wasn't enough of a priority for Whip Scalise to bring to the floor when the GOP held the majority last Congress," he said in an email.

By linking the widow's tax and the must-pass defense bill, Democrats have put it on the fast track, he suggested.

"House Democrats added the widow's tax fix to the must-pass defense authorization bill to send it quickly to the Senate," he added.

Like Moore-Duncan, Elly Gibbons of Fort Smith lost her husband, John, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant, to cancer caused by his Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam.

Watching U.S. House debates on the defense reauthorization act on Friday, Gibbons said she sees reason behind points made by both sides, Republicans and Democrats.

But about this issue -- benefits paid and promised to surviving military spouses -- "there needs to be compassion and understanding," Gibbons said. "We have already paid a price, and a big one."

A Section on 07/13/2019

CORRECTION: U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth is a Democrat from Kentucky. Yarmuth’s party affiliation was misidentified in an earlier version of this article.

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