Washington has come together on one item, but not after much heartache by military families and embarrassment of elected officials.
The House and Senate passed a measure allowing payment of death benefits to military families during the government shutdown. President Obama signed the resolution into law hours after the Senate vote according to the Military Times.
Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the death benefits issue had been largely resolved for families on Thursday when the Defense Department signed a contract with a non-profit charity, Fisher House, for the organization to pay death benefits to families, with the Pentagon promising to reimburse expenses once the government shutdown is over. “The issue is largely moot,” he said. “It has been resolved.”
Still, nobody objected when Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked for a vote on the House-passed bill.
Lawmakers thought they had provided funding for death benefits with the Sept. 30 enactment of the Pay Our Military Act, a measure promising full pay and allowances to service members during a government shutdown. Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that the pay law did not apply to death benefits, where Defense Department and Justice Department lawyers had determined were not, technically, pay or allowances.
The issue got political attention after five service members were killed in Afghanistan over the weekend, but Hale said he had already warned on Oct. 1 that death benefits were not going to be paid.
Since the shutdown on Oct. 1, 26 active-duty service members have died and are eligible for the $100,000 death gratuity.
But the resolution does not address reduced hours at the National Veterans’ Cemeteries and the fact that workers who prepare the grave sites for burials are working without pay until the shutdown resolved. Howard Altman of the Tampa Tribune reports that on average 30 burials a day are held at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.
If the government shutdown doesn’t end by Oct. 22, national cemeteries will have to reduce the number of veterans they can bury every day, furlough employees and limit the care they give to gravesites, said Kurt Rotar, director of the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.
“I am very concerned,” Rotar said. “If we run out of funds, we go into the shutdown mode and have to send home three-quarters of our workforce. The mission of internment of veterans won’t stop, but we won’t be able to do as many in a day.”
Rotar said Oct. 22 is the day money already allocated to the national cemeteries will run out.