CONGRESSWOMAN ELISE STEFANIK
H.R. 23 is being considered on the floor under suspension of the rules, requiring a two-thirds majority vote for passage. This legislation was introduced by Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA) on January 6, 2009.
H.R. 23 establishes at the Department of the Treasury a Merchant Mariner Equity Compensation Fund for monthly payments of $1,000 to be made by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to Merchant Mariners. Qualifying individuals would be those who;
The bill requires that qualifying individuals apply for their monthly benefit within one year of the enactment of the bill, and not have received benefits under the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944.
The bill also requires the Secretary to include, in annual budget documents submitted to Congress, detailed information on the Fund's operation.
The bill authorities $120 million for FY 2010, $108 million for FY 2011, $97 million for FY 2012, $85 million for FY 2013, and $75 million for FY 2014.
H.R. 23 sets up what is effectively a service pension of $1,000 a month to be paid to WWII Merchant Marines who have veterans' status. Part of the rationale for this payment has been to make up for the "lost" GI Bill benefits for which mariners were ineligible when they were young. It is important to note that WWII Merchant Marines are classified as veterans and qualify for all Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits and services including healthcare.
The U.S. Merchant Marines contributed to the WWII effort through the transportation of goods, materials, and personnel to the various theaters of war. These mariners were considered civilians and not members of the U.S. Armed Forces. As such, they did not get veterans' benefits after the war, including the 1944 GI Bill.
In 1977, the GI Improvement Bill was passed. Contained within this legislation was a provision that set up a process to determine eligibility for veterans' benefits to groups of civilians that assisted in wartime efforts. In 1988, the Secretary or the Air Force, via litigation, determined that the Merchant Marines who served from December 7, 1941 to August 14, 1945 (Victory over Japan Day) would be eligible for all benefits. These benefits include healthcare, old age pension and other benefits afforded by the VA.
Merchant Mariners who served between August 14, 1945 and December 31, 1946, only receive veterans' burial and cemetery benefits.
*Note - During the contentious Committee hearing on this legislation, concerns about the funding mechanism were also raised. In previous Congresses when this legislation was introduced, it was subject to PAYGO rules because the payment will be an entitlement.
By setting up a separate fund in the Treasury and making it subject to appropriations, this authorizing legislation essentially passes responsibility to the Appropriations Committee and forces them to find a way to fund this new program. If sufficient funds are not appropriated, some mariners would receive their payments, but some would not.
Additional concerns were voiced regarding the amount of the monthly payment. $1,000 is, in some cases, significantly higher than the pensions received for many WWII combat veterans. Outside groups have argued that this is necessary because it was not until 1988 that the Merchant Marines were recognized for their service. It should be noted though, that the VA typically does not offer any sort of retroactive compensation.
The CBO office estimates that implementing H.R. 23 would cost $113 million in 2010, and $438 million over the 2010-2014 period, assuming appropriation of the authorized amounts.