A friend of mine went to an anti-war rally with a sign that read "Love the Warriors, Hate the War." The war in Iraq is a reasonable topic for debate, or should be. The way we, as a nation, treat our veterans should not be up for discussion. Unfortunately, the lack of discussion worked the wrong way on March 21, when the House of Representatives, on party lines, voted in support of a budget that cut $265 billion over 10 years in programs such as Medicaid, veterans' benefits, student loans, housing assistance and pensions and benefits for federal employees. The cuts to the Veterans Administration budget have been estimated at $14&endash;$15 billion over the next 10 years. This was even more stringent than President Bush's initial budget, which had called for a nominal increase in the VA budget, although even this was done by factoring in higher co-pays for VA health services, so that the veterans themselves would pay for the budget increase.
The Veterans Administration estimates that there are over 25 million living veterans, and more than 75% served during a period of active hostilities. Including dependents of veterans, over 70 million people are entitled to some VA benefits.
Forgetfulness after the fact is fair game. We, whether as individuals or as a nation, forget things, which is why we're so often reduced to going around in circles. Even so, forgetting the contributions of veterans while apparently relying on news of a war to keep the details of the budget vote hidden in the back of the paper, and off the broadcast news, takes audacity.
Similarly, according to the Kaiser Foundation Daily Health Report, on March 31 the House rejected a Senate-backed plan that would provide $262,100 for the families of people who died as a result of smallpox vaccine injection. Project Bioshield, the administration's plan to develop and distribute vaccines against the infections that might typically be used in germ warfare, was approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee on March 19. It provides a great deal of financial and legal protection for the companies that will produce the vaccines. The legislation assures vaccine manufacturers that they will make a profit. It does not provide any assurances for the people who might be injured by the vaccines themselves, or for their families. The people most likely to be injured by the vaccinations are people in the armed services, and first responders, police, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians.
The administration's attitude towards the people in the military and the first responders in case of terrorism attacks seems like a continuation of President Bush's policies. While the administration has publicly lauded the first responders, and used the tragedy of Sept. 11 as a justification for its policies, Bush vetoed a budget supplement to provide funding for safety and communications equipment for firefighters.
It seems to be of more than passing interest that the House of Representatives has been more willing to fall in lockstep with the administration than has the Senate. The House, after all, is the legislative body charged with considering the welfare of the people, while the senators represent their states. House members have a short term of office, only two years, and should be responsive to the needs of their constituencies. Instead, they seem to be more receptive to the demands of the administration and political leadership than the senators. The difference may be that senators, being fewer, are better able to get campaign contributions from all over the country, while representatives are more dependent on the largess of the party. The result is that representatives are more likely to vote their party's interests (as defined by party leadership) than constituent interest. In other words, the majority of House members feel that political advertising is more important to their careers than a constituent-oriented voting record. Sadly, the voters seem to agree.
There are flags flying, and yellow ribbons, and signs that say "support the troops." Today, they're troops, but tomorrow they'll be veterans. And they've already been told how they'll be welcomed home.
Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y.