It’s hard to imagine a government program more worthy than one that would provide health benefits to war veterans injured by toxic fumes. In fact, it’s so worthy that it’s worth paying for.
The Senate last week passed the Honoring Our PACT Act, which provides health and disability benefits to veterans suffering because they were exposed to toxic substances while on duty. From 2022 until 2031, it would increase veterans’ disability benefits by $153 billion and health benefits by $102 billion.
Among the beneficiaries would be Bill Rhodes of Mena, who was exposed to toxic herbicides while serving in Thailand during the Vietnam War and has been an advocate for funding.
Arkansas’ Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton voted for the bill, which passed 84-14. The 14 “no” votes were all Republicans, including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mitt Romney of Utah. Boozman is a senior member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
The bill returns to the House, which previously passed its version 256-174 and must pass the Senate’s amended version before sending it to President Biden’s desk. The state’s four U.S. representatives – Reps. Rick Crawford, French Hill, Steve Womack and Bruce Westerman – all voted no the first time.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars and other veterans’ organizations applauded passage of the bill, which is understandable. It’s surely needed.
There’s just one problem. Like most everything else Congress does these days, no effort was made to pay for it. No taxes were raised, and nothing else in government was cut.
According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the Honoring Our PACT Act will add at least a total of $277 billion to federal budget deficits through 2031.
All of this would be classified as mandatory spending, like Social Security and Medicare, which means the government must spend it and Congress wouldn’t debate it on a yearly basis. It also would move another $390 billion in other discretionary funding to the mandatory side.
Mandatory spending now composes 65 percent of federal spending, while another 6 percent is net interest on the national debt, according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Congress is only even debating roughly 30 percent of what the government spends; the rest is on autopilot and growing. By comparison, 62 percent of spending was discretionary in 1970.
By 2051, discretionary spending is projected to compose only 17 percent of spending, but mandatory spending will also shrink as a percentage of the government’s ever-growing expenditures, to 55 percent. Interest on the debt will balloon to 27 percent.
This is all happening in an era when the national debt is exploding. On June 16, it reached $30.4 trillion, which is equivalent to $91,455 for every American man, woman and child. The day President Biden took office, the debt was $27.75 trillion. When President Trump took office four years earlier, it was $19.9 trillion.
We’ve normalized $1 trillion annual deficits, which means that even in a good year the government will spend $3,000 more per American than it collects.
When you’re already adding trillions to the credit card, another $277 billion doesn’t seem like a big deal – especially for a worthy cause. So instead of figuring out how to pay for the Honoring Our PACT Act, Congress just … charged it as usual.
That $277 billion is the equivalent of $832 for every American man, woman and child, spread out between now and 2031. We should be willing to pay that cost in higher taxes or by cutting other government spending, including spending that benefits us personally.
Caring for veterans is one of the costs of war. Service members and veterans should not be the only ones making a sacrifice. We civilians sitting at home in front of our TVs should feel a little pain as well, if only in our pocketbooks.
Moreover, if war demanded more direct sacrifices from all of us, it might affect how often the nation engaged in it. Generally, one way to sell less of something is to make it more expensive.
To sum it up, Bill Rhodes and all other veterans suffering from toxic exposure should get the benefits they deserve.
The rest of us should pay for it – with a check, not a credit card.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 17 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at brawner firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.