One of my job responsibilities is teaching a class of RA candidates. One of the first classes is usually spent discussing the history of higher education and the development of the concept of living on campus. The GI Bill of Rights is one of the historical milestones discussed in our class as the bill’s passage significantly impacted higher education by swelling the enrollment of many institutions (which then impacted the style of on-campus housing). Ultimately, the GI Bill kept the United States from falling back into the Great Depression following World War II. Providing returning veterans – including African-Americans and women – with a college education and unemployment compensation allowed thousands of families to join the middle class. The original law, passed in 1944, is a shining example of common good politics.

A new GI Bill, co-authored by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), has been presented in Congress. Webb and Hagel wish to restore and strengthen the educational benefits offered to soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan that were available to veterans of World War II. The bill would provide an educational allowance equivalent to the tuition of their state’s most expensive public institution. The new GI Bill also includes home-heating assistance and a thirteen week extension of unemployment insurance.

The bill has been approved by the House by a 256-166 margin. The Senate approved the legislation with a war funding bill attached (75-22). As a result of the House and Senate passing different packages of legislation, the GI Bill of 2008 will return to the House for another vote prior to going to the White House.

Stuck in a quagmire and not minding it, Bush and McCain have rejected this proposal as detrimental to the military, with Bush threatening a veto. Arguing that the bill is too generous, both the President and McCain have asserted that troops will choose the opportunity to go to college rather than re-enlist, which they claim will hurt the military’s effort in Iraq. Both point to a report from the Congressional Budget Office that claims the legislation would result in a loss of sixteen percent of enlisted troops as evidence. The problem is that the same report notes that the legislation’s passage would result in a sixteen percent increase in enlistments – which compensates for any defections.

This legislation is a nightmare for Bush, McCain, and congressional Republicans. It forces them to prove that they are not merely paying lip service to the bravery of our young men and women in uniform. A no vote would finally and completely unveil that the Republican Party’s strategy of wrapping itself in the American flag when the going gets tough is nothing more than a sham.  While troops continue to pay the ultimate price and suffer tragedies like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, our president and the Republican nominee are continuing to argue that they would rather troops spend more than three years in Iraq than enjoy the rewards of honorably serving their country.

But more importantly, it can serve as a crucial point in American history, just as important as its much older sibling, the GI Bill of 1944, was. Should it pass (most likely via a veto override), the new law would serve as the most compelling example yet that the culture wars of the late Twentieth Century are over, and that another pragmatic, progressive, and common-good era is on its way.

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