Filipino Veterans’ Bill Down to the Wire
FILIPINO AMERICAN COMMUNITY RALLIES FOR VETERANS’ BILL AS CONGRESS ENDS
By: Rita M. Gerona-Adkins
Washington, D.C. Sept. 24 --- The Filipino American community has been in a dither lately over the imminent closing of the 110th Congress, while the Filipino World War II veterans’ bills in the Senate and the House have not been reconciled to a common bill that they could pass and be signed by the President into law.
In a down-to-the-wire move just a few days from the adjournment of Congress for the national elections, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-CA), chairman of the Senate veterans’ affairs committee, urgently seeks a conference meeting between the Senate and House veterans affairs committees to resolve differences that impede the passage of a common bill providing benefits for Filipino World War II veterans.
His move came as a result of two rapid developments that were lately taken at the House level moving the Filipino veterans’ issue to a closer, if not striking, distance from being pushed to passage by the 110th Congress before it terminates on Sept. 26.
ON Tuesday, Sept. 23, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 6897 called “Filipino Veterans Equity Act of 2008” with an overwhelming vote of 392-23.
Authored by Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA), chairman of the House veterans affairs committee, the bill provides a one-time lump sum payment to Filipino veterans who served in World War II: $15,000 to naturalized U.S. citizens and $9,000 to Filipinos who are not U.S. citizens.
Of the 18,000 to 19,000 surviving Filipino World War II veterans, about 12,000 of them are Filipinos.
Payments, as indicated in Section 3 of the bill, shall come from funds that shall be made available to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs from the general fund of the Treasury, and shall be known as “Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund.”
The Filner bill was previously approved unanimously by the House veterans’ affairs committee on Monday, Sept. 22 after it was first presented to it the week before on Sept. 17.
House Also Amended S.1315
The House, on Sept. 22, also passed an amendment to the Senate bill S.1315 “Veterans’ Benefits Enhancement Act of 2008” that removed the funding mandate for offsetting the bill’s expenditure, an issue that had met with strong opposition that effectively held up the bill.
Authored by Akaka, the Senate bill is favored more by the veterans as it addresses rescinding the Rescission Act that deprives Filipino veterans of non-service connected benefits.
The holding up of the bill at the House level has worried the veterans and their supporters that Congress might ran out of time, as the 110th Congress adjourns this month for the national elections, and face a lame duck Congress should it reconvene.
At this writing, both chairmen of the veterans affairs committees are said to be “talking to each other” to try to resolve differences over funding and other concerns in a conference meeting.
Perils of Conference Meeting
Kawika Riley, press secretary of the Senate veterans’ affairs committee, told this Asian Fortune writer in a telephone call from his office morning of Sept. 24, “I can’t tell you what’s going to happen…but I do know that Chairman Akaka is going to seek a conference between the Senate and the House on S. 1315. But we don’t know if we would even be allowed to have a conference because that request goes to a full Senate, and that presents an opportunity for opponents to reject or to distract the process. At least, if the conference happens, then we have a process for the negotiations on the final version of S.1315 [to take place]…which we don’t know what it would be.”
He reiterated that Akaka “is working very hard to get the best solution before this Congress adjourns.”
Reactions from the Filipino community and the Philippine Embassy to the passage of H.R. 6897 were generally that of having made some progress while still hopeful for a favorable resolution of differences in a conference meeting.
DCM Soreta: ‘The bigger picture’
The Philippine Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission Carlos “King” Soreta has an upbeat view of the House actions. In an informal press briefing held at the Cannon cafeteria courtyard after the House committee passed the Filner bill, he said:
“We look at the bigger picture. There are two bills: Filner’s bill, which has been unanimously approved at the committee meeting, represents an important point where both Democrats and Republicans have come to an agreement that in principle says money should be given to the Filipinos. No dispute about that. That is one of the points of differences that has been overcome...and have to be fine tuned in [conference] negotiations…
“The other bill, S.1315, is still alive with only one amendment approved, removing the [controversial] Hartness court case and PAYGO mandate, which means that they will have to look for another funding source.
“What happened today is a bipartisan support [that gives] an important opening for those who have differences, to resolve them.”
He also praised House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for making good her promise to put the bill to the floor “despite the many urgent problems she faces,” as well as Rep. Filner “who took a political gamble” in pushing his stand-alone bill.
‘A big victory, but…”
Maj. Gen (Ret.) Delfin Lorenzana, head of Philippine Embassy’s office of veterans affairs, told this writer, “It is a big victory for us after working many years on the veterans’ issue; however, the bill has a lot more to hurdle when it’s negotiated with the Senate, which looks to this bill’s [one-time payment] provision with disapproval.”
He added, “They don’t like it, but [Sen.] Akaka will now be able to move the issue to a conference, which has only a few days. If they are not able to confer on the bill, then it dies.”
Representatives of Filipino American advocacy organizations were also hopeful in the face of a still unsettled future for the bill.
Ben de Guzman, spokesperson for the National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity, told this correspondent, “This mission is still viable. The bill S.1315 is still alive, so we will just have to continue our work.”
Jon Melegrito, communications director of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations, also expressed hopefulness but opined, “there is a high expectation that S.1315 is more and more likely to be watered down.”
“We’ve come from ‘all or nothing’ to ‘something is better than nothing’,” he told this correspondent, recalling the absolute position taken by Alex Esclamado, founder and first national president of the 11-year-old National Federation of Filipino American Associations, in lobbying for the veterans’ equity issue.
Also observing an ironic subtext to Congress’ action on the Filipino veterans’ issue, Melegrito added, “On the same day they were debating the two bills, it was so surreal that at same time Congress was debating about bailing out Wall Street for $700 billion, they were also debating on how to bail themselves out of the Rescission Act because they could not find the money for it.”
Fund Authorized for One-Time Payment
Regarding the funding and disbursement of the one-time payment of the Filner bill, the mandate for it is precisely stated in “Authorization of Appropriation – There is authorized to be appropriated to the compensation fund $198,000,000, to remain available until expended, to make payments under this section.”
Payments shall be made to eligible applicants during the one-year period to begin from the date of the enactment of the Act.
Eligible recipients would be surviving veterans mandated by the Armed Forces of the United States under three categories: 1) recruits into the Philippine Commonwealth Army; 2) members of organized guerrilla forces; and 3) Philippine Scouts recruited for a brief period in 1945.
The bill also indicates that acceptance by an eligible person of such payment shall be final, and shall constitute a complete release of any claim against the U.S. by reason of any service in the war. Ranking member Rep. Steve Buyer proposed this salient feature as an amendment.
Referring to the passage of S.1315, as amended on Sept. 22 through the suspension of rules put into motion by him, Filner explained, “What we have done to amend it is to move this from a mandatory spending bill to a discretionary spending bill by removing all of the mandatory provisions and also the PAYGO provisions that have caused so much controversy.”
PAYGO is a rule established by an earlier Congress that requires a bill with expenditure to identify a definite source of the money that would be used for it.
The funding mandate in the original Senate-passed bill would have overturned a 2001 court decision for a veteran’s claim in the case of Hartness v Nicholson, that held VA must pay a special monthly pension benefit to severely disabled, elderly and poor wartime veterans.
Akaka, as the Senate bill’s author, had envisioned this mandate as a workable basis for funding the benefits for Filipino WWII veterans, including those in the Philippines who have not received any for their service. This raised opposition from American veterans service organizations after Buyer criticized the move as giving special treatment to Filipino veterans who are not even U.S. citizens.
Reactions of Veterans, Supporters
Reactions by veterans to the two developments taken by the House committee on Sept. 22 were mixtures of joy and a sense of wonderment and worry about funding and the little time to act before the imminent ending of Congress.
Alfredo Diaz, 90, past president of the Filipino veterans organization in New Jersey who has faithfully come to lobby in Congress over the years, said, “I’m just happy…I feel that with these moves, Congress will surely pass our bill after all.” Later disappointed that the House bill would have to be voted on the floor the next day, he started to worry about “how they’re going to get the funding.”
Ninety-one-year old veteran Celestino Almeda, who commutes in a wheel chair from his home in Alexandria, Virginia, to lobby in Congress, was also optimistic, but reiterated his threat to stop wearing his five medals honoring his service “If the bill with one-time payment is passed as it is.”
His main opposition to the one-time payment provision of the Filner bill is based on the view shared by other veterans both in the U.S. and in the Philippines that it makes them “like mercenaries paid to do a job.”
Others who also came to witness the committee hearing were Virginia-based veterans Guillermo Rumingan, Rudy Panaglima, and Amadeo Urbano, and D.C.-based Joaquin Tejada; and supporters including Mr. Javier, Bing Branigin of NaFFAA’s Capital Region Chapter, and Susan Maguindang Dilkes, executive director of FASGI, a service provider in the West Coast, who also stayed for the House floor vote the next day.