Johnny Comes Marching Home


Congress is awash in legislative proposals to confer special benefits on the victorious veterans of Operation Desert Storm. Democrats who voted against the use of force are, if anything, more fervent than Republicans influenced by budget concerns of the Bush administration.

In the patriotic joy of the moment, it is difficult to deny gulf war veterans generous recompense in the form of education, health, insurance, tax and job-security benefits. And, in principle, this is the way it should be.

But it will do the cause of veterans no good if Congress is so swept away by emotion or political calculation to approve programs that will be hard to fund over the long run. This can lead to false hopes and unfulfilled promises. Indeed, the whole veterans program could be brought into disrepute.

Benefits should be related to the actual needs and circumstances created by the gulf war. Reservists and National Guard personnel who were torn from civilian jobs at great financial sacrifice should be entitled to reemployment in their old or in comparable positions and should receive a financial payment related to their specific cases.

For regulars in the all-volunteer force, an increase in G.I. Bill education benefits of perhaps $100 a month is very much in order. To the extent they continue their education, in or out of service, the country reaps a blessing.

We also would favor the elimination of arbitrary restrictions now in the law that deny benefits to reservists who did not serve 181 days in the gulf or who were held less than 30 days as prisoners of war. In addition, a retroactive increase in combat pay, death benefits and health care coverage might be warranted.

More problematical are proposals to offer tax breaks, increase life insurance, permit penalty-free retirement fund withdrawals and grant other emoluments. But where Democratic partisans and the Republican White House get most confrontational is over budgeting methods. Democrats want this cost placed in an "emergency" category, along with the strictly military expenses of the war, so that spending limits in last October's budget agreement can be skirted. The administration wants to force Congress to cut back on other entitlement programs, such as Medicare and farm subsidies, to stay within agreed limits.

Though we favor the budget discipline professed by the White House, we hope the issue can be ironed out without a Capitol Hill battle that would sour the sweetness of victory and dim the luster of homecoming welcomes for gulf war vets.

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