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With Pension Cuts Looming, Vets Get Mobilized


Something unusual happened in the nation's capital late last year. Congress reached a $1 trillion budget deal. Both parties signed on. Here's one way it saved money: It cuts $6 billion out of military pensions. That outraged a powerful lobby, veterans service organizations.

NPR's Quil Lawrence reports that, now, Congress is showing another kind of unity. Both parties are scrambling to repeal that part of the deal.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Veterans service organizations, or VSOs, are not your normal everyone-loves-to-hate Washington lobbyists. They're the kind that politicians want to be seen with.

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: And this legislation was not written by me.

LAWRENCE: That's Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

SANDERS: This legislation, in fact, was written by these people. And I just want to say a word of thank you to the millions of veterans whom they represent.

LAWRENCE: These people who he mentioned were about 20 heads of VSOs standing with him at a press conference. Sanders chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee. He's independent but mostly votes with Democrats. One after another, heads of VSOs endorsed his 400-page bill, like Joe Violante with Disabled American Veterans.

JOE VIOLANTE: There are many provisions in this bill that are going to help disabled veterans, their families and survivors.

LAWRENCE: The bill would repeal the cut to pensions but also expand VA health care, help with GI Bill tuition, add dental and reproductive health benefits. Like Sanders said, the VSOs pretty much wrote it.

RAY KELLEY: I'm Ray Kelley, national legislative director for Veterans of Foreign Wars. There's something in this bill for every generation of veteran.

LAWRENCE: When Kelley talks about every generation, he's hinting at long-running divisions between World War II vets, Vietnam vets and now post-9/11 vets. A little history, these generational divides go way back in America. For example, historian Robert Bateman says after the Civil War, the Union Army formed a lobby.

ROBERT BATEMAN: The Grand Army of the Republic became one of the key and central political forces of the late 19th century.

LAWRENCE: After the Spanish-American war in 1898, those new vets formed their own lobby, the VFW. Almost every war, every generation has formed its own VSO. Bateman says in the past, they've worked at cross purposes or sometimes tied themselves too closely to one political party.

BATEMAN: When they realized that that was limiting their appeal to the past 20, 30 years of veterans, they started to try and branch out. The newest VSOs, they can get away with being completely bipartisan.

LAWRENCE: This year, the cut in military pensions has united most of the VSOs. Larry Korb at the Center for American Progress says when the veterans groups unite, Congress trembles.

LARRY KORB: Well, basically what they do, to use their term, they storm the Hill. They send all of their, you know, members up there, like it's a no-win for the Congress, particularly many of them have not served in the military.

LAWRENCE: Korb, who is a veteran and worked at the Pentagon under President Reagan, says the cut to military pensions is modest and needed to curb runaway personnel costs. VSOs counter the cut undermines morale and breaks a promise to veterans. But if you thought the Super Bowl was a blowout, the pension cut fight appears all but over, and veterans groups are winning. The fight now in Congress might just be over which party gets the credit and gets to stand with all those veterans when a pension fix goes through.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.