Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel accepted a private foundation’s offer to help cover the death gratuity payments for families of fallen soldiers while deflecting all blame from his department or the administration for stopping the payments in the first place.
“Today I am pleased to announce that the Department of Defense is entering into an agreement with the Fisher House Foundation that will allow the federal government to provide the family members of fallen service members with the full set of benefits they have been promised, including a $100,000 death gratuity payment,” Hagel said in a statement.
The Fisher House currently provides lodging and flights to families who want to be near their loved ones in military medical facilities or VA hospitals. Yesterday, the nonprofit offered to advance the money to families.
“I am offended, outraged, and embarrassed that the government shutdown had prevented the Department of Defense from fulfilling this most sacred responsibility in a timely manner,” Hagel continued. “In the days before the shutdown, we warned Congress and the American people that DoD would not have the legal authority to make these payments during a lapse in appropriations. In the days after the shutdown, Departmental lawyers and budget officials pursued every tool and option at our disposal in an effort to provide these benefits. Even under the Pay Our Military Act, we found that we lacked the necessary authority to make payments to the families directly.”
On the contrary, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle said that they believed the payments were covered under the Pay Our Military Act, which broadly funds active-duty personnel as well as essential civilians and contractors.
What the payments boiled down to was Hagel’s interpretation of the law.
“In the last 24 hours, however, the Department of Defense was approached by the Fisher House Foundation, which had generously offered to make payments to these families from its own funds. In consultation with the Office of Management and Budget, DoD has determined that we can enter into a contract with the Fisher House Foundation to provide these benefits. The Fisher House Foundation will provide the families of the fallen with the benefits they so richly deserve. After the shutdown ends, DoD will reimburse the Fisher House for the costs it has incurred,” Hagel continued.
That offer was brokered by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) as lawmakers scrambled for a stopgap measure to assist families of five fallen soldiers since the shutdown began.
“The Department has no higher priority than taking care of our service members and their families,” Hagel continued. “Our men and women in uniform must know that the Department will always fulfill its responsibilities to them and to their families. Congress has responsibilities as well, and it has abdicated them. Along with the rest of the Department’s leaders, I will continue to work every day to address the very real impact that the government shutdown is having on our people, and I once again call on Congress to fulfill its basic responsibilities and restore funding for the federal government.”
Before Hagel’s announcement, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the White House was working on a fix that “does not involve legislation.”
“We will have a solution to this problem today,” Carney said. “The president has directed the OMB and his lawyers to find a solution to this. They’re working on it and will have it today.”
Carney said the problem was that the death benefits weren’t “explicitly addressed” in the broadly written Pay Our Military Act, which Obama signed on the even of the shutdown.
“What Congress did not do when it was informed by the Department of Defense that the DOD would be legally unable to pay these death benefits was take action, A, to keep the government open. That did not seem to disturb the Republicans who thought it was the right thing to do to shut the government down, just as it did not seem to be particularly disturbing to Republicans when they would cause all the other consequences of shutdown. They chose, instead, to shut the government down,” he added.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) pointed the finger of blame at Eric Holder.
“The Pentagon isn’t totally autonomous. They have to deal with the Justice Department. I think the Justice Department attorneys were interpreting it differently. I think that’s probably the ones that muddied this up,” McKeon told CNN.
The House this afternoon passed the explicit reinstatement of death gratuities and related survivor benefits on a vote of 425-0.
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) called for support in the upper chamber, which has refused to bring piecemeal appropriations bills to the floor.
“There may be differences in opinion in this chamber over the fiscal direction of this country, but we should be united in the need to do right by our military families,” Cornyn said. “The way they have been treated is outrageous and unacceptable and must be rectified immediately.”
“If they don’t want to deal with it, if they don’t want to take care of the survivors of those who pay the ultimate price, shame on them,” McKeon said. “I think they should take it up this afternoon, have it on the president’s desk tomorrow, and not have any hijinx. We shouldn’t be treating our military like this.”