Slimdown shame -- veterans and military families as political pawns

If nothing else, credit the 2013 partial government shutdown with adding “shutdown theater” to the political lexicon. That’s the best way to describe the Obama administration’s ham-handed attempts to inflict pain on Americans by taking blatant steps to deny access to government services, thereby stoking public outrage and putting political pressure on the president’s Capitol Hill adversaries.

In some cases, “shutdown theater” gamesmanship is nothing more than absurd, like the decision of many government agencies to shutter their websites, costing more than it would have to simply leave them in place.

But in other instances, the tactics have grown outright vindictive as President Obama angles to gain political advantage at any cost. The administration’s shoddy treatment of veterans and military families during the last two weeks is a case in point.


On day one of the partial government shutdown, we saw this crass political strategy deployed against veterans visiting the World War II Memorial in Washington. For inexplicable reasons, that open-air memorial was barricaded off by the National Park Service.

The WWII veterans -- who had fought back far more imposing foes than administration “mall cops”-- pushed aside the barriers and filed into the memorial. A reminder of why we call them the “The Greatest Generation.”

Another manifestation of the administration’s turning its “shutdown theater” against veterans can be found in the recent announcement from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that VA benefits would be cut off at the end of this month if the shutdown continues.

That’s a surprising decision, given that other government benefits like Social Security, Medicare and food stamps have not been threatened, and large portions of the VA budget are funded a year in advance.

Indeed, it’s worth emphasizing how “partial” this “partial government shutdown” really is. The federal government is still spending at about 85 percent of its normal rate, with vast swaths of government activity unaffected. From that perspective, it’s strange that veterans should be bearing so much of the pain of the shutdown.

In the most appalling example, the Obama administration decided to suspend payments made to military families upon the death of a service member in action. These lump-sum payments of $100,000 are typically paid within days to ensure that when an American warrior dies in service, their families don’t face financial ruin.

The administration claimed it was impossible to pay the death benefits—which, as of last week, amounted to only around $1.7 million in October—because of the partial shutdown.

But this claim is laughable on its face. The House of Representatives passed legislation to fund the benefits, and a chastened Senate soon followed. At that point, the president had no choice but to sign the bill.

It was a political “sacrifice” for him, as it meant he had to surrender what he had hoped would be a terrific political cudgel to wield against his GOP nemeses.

What’s perhaps most galling is that this was completely avoidable. The payment of death benefits to military families could have easily been redirected from other, less pressing budget categories in the Department of Defense.

Given that just a few days ago the Pentagon figured out how to bring 345,000 furloughed employees back to work, it strains the imagination to think that paying a few hundred thousand dollars in death benefits would strain the budget.

As an alternative the president could have also opted simply to have directed that the payments be made via executive order. After all, this president has shown no compunction about using executive orders to bypass Congress and advance his preferences in the past.

Or he might have instructed his ally in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, to pass the bill without hesitation.

Instead, President Obama allowed the death benefits question to fester in public for days—sending a clear message to the troops about the value of their sacrifice.

Veteran advocacy groups, outraged by the partial shutdown and its effects on the veterans’ community, have reacted with justifiable anger against Washington.

That said, my critique of the Obama administration’s handling of this issue should not be mistaken for a defense of Congress’s role in the shutdown debacle. There is plenty of blame to go around.

Yet, I sympathize with the fiscally responsible members of Congress who seek to reform spending and reduce debt, addressing a $17 trillion debt burden that is a threat to national security and our nation’s fiscal health. Shutdown theater sidetracked the well-intentioned deficit hawks' best moment in years to tackle some of these problems.

The government shutdown and debt ceiling standoff should end as soon as possible, but any “deal” must still address the unsustainable reality of the government’s long-term spending trends.

Making a stand to get America’s fiscal house in order is the right stance for all Americans, especially veterans.

Veterans, the military, and military families are currently taking the fall for Washington’s irresponsibility, a burden that will eventually fall on everyone if nothing changes on America’s balance sheet.

In the meantime, the lesson should be clear: don’t treat veterans and military families as chits to be tossed around in negotiations -- particularly when you have flamboyantly declared that you have no intention of negotiating with your rivals. Our troops deserve more from their commander-in-chief.