The Obama administration’s despicable attempts to make the government shutdown as painful as possible for Americans has finally hit bottom. Until a charitable foundation stepped in to fill the gap, the Department of Defense (DoD) was more than willing to deny death benefits to the families of fallen soldiers. The Pentagon claimed that a law passed just prior to the government shutdown allowing the military to be paid did not cover the benefits. In truth, an Obama administration, whose hallmark is selective law enforcement, has relied on the flimsiest of technicalities to inflict unnecessary pain on families already shattered by the deaths of their sons and daughters.
Just before the government shutdown began, Congress passed the “Pay Our Military” act, allowing servicemen to continue receiving paychecks on time during the shutdown. It was passed unanimously in the House, approved without dissent in the Senate, and signed by the president. The bill ostensibly provided “such sums as are necessary to provide pay and allowances to members of the Armed Forces” on active duty, as well as “essential” civilian personnel and contractors.
So what happened? A 2011 Pentagon report sent to Congress titled “Pays and Allowances Summary” lists a $100,000 “Death gratuity” originally put there in 1908. On the other hand, the 2014 Pentagon Personnel Budget lists the death gratuity under the heading “other military personnel costs,” not “pay and allowances.” Defense Department attorneys and budget officials contend that the “Pay Our Military Act” only authorized pay and allowances, not other military personnel costs. “Given the wording of the ‘Pay Our Military Act,’ DOD is only allowed to spend money on ‘pay and allowances,’ and the death gratuity does not fall under that section of the budget,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “If that’s not what Congress intended, they should not have used the phrase ‘pay and allowances’ in the bill.”
On the basis of that technicality, death benefits were denied to the families of dead soldiers.
Yet there are a number of other factors in play here. Several members of Congress from both parties were shocked by the DoD’s interpretation of the law. So much so, a bipartisan group of seven Senators, including Roy Blunt (R-MO), Chris Coons (D-DE), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), John Boozman (R-AK), Tom Carper (D-DE) and Jerry Moran (R-KA) sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel calling for the death benefits to be restored. “Any delay in providing families with this essential benefit is absolutely unacceptable,” it said.
Moreover, the idea that the DoD would favor the 2014 Pentagon Personnel Budget interpretation of death benefit eligibility over the 2011 Pays and Allowances Summary apparently rests on another technical reality, namely that the federal government’s fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, 2013 and runs to Sept. 30, 2014. That the government shutdown has effectively suspended the beginning of FY2014, at least with respect to some of its obligations, would seem to provide the DoD with some wiggle room–wiggle room made even more palatable when one factors in the reaction of Congress, which thought it had left the death benefits intact. Instead, the DoD chose to embrace an uncompromisingly rigid interpretation of the law.
Perhaps the DoD had some “help.” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) believes the Department of Justice and Eric Holder were involved as well. “The Pentagon isn’t totally autonomous. They have to deal with the Justice Department. I think the Justice Department attorneys were interpreting it differently. I think [they are] probably the ones that muddied this up,” McKeon told CNN.
There is little doubt that this administration is more than willing to “muddy” up the law to advance its agenda. One need only to remember that the president completely ignored the War Powers Act of 1973 to prosecute the war in Libya, unilaterally defied the healthcare law as written to delay the employer mandate for a year, and has done everything he can to circumvent immigration law.
Furthermore, a host of administration officials have been involved in stonewalling investigations of the the Fast and Furious gunrunning scandal, Benghazi, the IRS’s targeting of conservative Americans, and the DOJ’s wiretapping of journalists. Thus, the idea that this president and his administration have suddenly discovered a newfound respect for the precise letter of the law — as a means of inflicting further pain on the families of fallen heroes, no less — is utterly contemptible.
That contempt is revealed by the sequence of events in this sordid drama. After public outrage reached a crescendo, the House of Representatives agreed to restore the death benefit in a 425-0 vote on Wednesday. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney announced that the president was “disturbed” when he found out about the suspension of benefits. “The commander in chief, when he found out that this was not addressed, he directed that a solution be found, and we expect one today,” Carney said.
That solution involved a non-government entity. Later in the day, Hagel announced he had reached an agreement with the Fisher House Foundation. Fisher House, an organization that provides flights and accommodations to families who want to see their relatives in VA hospitals or other military medical facilities, offered to restore the benefits.
While accepting the generous donation (one that Fisher House initially made with no expectation of being reimbursed) Hagel couldn’t resist injecting politics into the event, attempting to insulate himself from criticism in the process. “I am offended, outraged, and embarrassed that the government shutdown had prevented the Department of Defense from fulfilling this most sacred responsibility in a timely manner,” he said. “In the days before the shutdown, we warned Congress and the American people that DoD would not have the legal authority to make these payments during a lapse in appropriations. In the days after the shutdown, Departmental lawyers and budget officials pursued every tool and option at our disposal in an effort to provide these benefits. Even under the Pay Our Military Act, we found that we lacked the necessary authority to make payments to the families directly.”
On Thursday, despite Majority Leader Harry Reid’s contention that the issue was now moot, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) pushed for passage of a similar resolution in the Senate. Cornyn wanted to make sure that the DoD and Fisher House would get bogged down figuring out their work-around. The Senate approved the measure by a voice vote.
Thus, all that remained for the issue to be put to rest was President Obama’s signature. Initially, Carney refused to say whether or not the present would sign the legislation. Later on, he revealed that Obama has no intention of signing the bill. “We don’t need legislation,” Carney contended. “The president directed that this be resolved and it has been. What is preposterous is this notion that we should, piecemeal, fix all the consequences caused by shutdown.”
What is even more preposterous is a president more than willing to use dead soldiers and their families as political pawns. Remarkably, no one in the media has apparently bothered to ask an essential question: what is the extent of Obama’s powers as Commander-in-Chief? Why couldn’t the same president who rewrote the healthcare bill via executive order use that same power to order the DoD to pay death benefits? Why didn’t he even make the attempt to do so?
The answer is obvious: the progressive agenda must be served, no matter what the cost. Toward that end, WWII veterans in their 70s and 80s must be prevented from accessing an open-air memorial erected in their honor, even as illegal immigration activists are welcomed at the same National Mall. American patriots fighting for their survival in Benghazi can be abandoned, and their deaths are blamed on a video, so that the fiction of the Arab Spring can be maintained. The American public can be frightened enough to believe the only fiscal choices the nation has are giving the administration a unlimited amount of borrowed money to spend, or enduring default and ruination. Our healthcare system must be transformed into a government fiefdom run by bureaucrats and monitored by the IRS. The Republican Party must not be the voice of spirited opposition, but the epitome of everything the American people should hold in contempt.
And because that agenda is so “noble,” it can be imposed by any means necessary.
Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale let the ideological cat out of the bag when Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) criticized him yesterday at a House Armed Services hearing regarding the denial of benefits. When Coffman insisted that the Hale’s objective was to “inflict as much harm as you possibly could in your own department,” while the DoD “took it upon itself to disregard the will of American people and violate the law,” Hale became indignant. “I resent your remarks,” Hale told Coffman. “I acted on the advice of attorneys and our best reading of a loosely worded law, and we did our best. It was not a political judgment.”
The best reading of a loosely worded law would have provided grieving mothers and fathers a measure of comfort when they were tasked with burying their sons and daughters. If this administration ever had anything resembling a moral compass, it no longer exists. Whether he knows it or not, Barack Obama owes the entire nation an apology for an atrocious debacle. One that could have been very easily avoided. That it wasn’t speaks volumes.
Update: Finally, after enduring withering criticism from Sen. Cornyn, who noted that his failure to sign the bill represented a “dereliction of duty by our commander in chief,” Obama signed the bill late Thursday.
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