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New Stolen Valor Act tops list of vet-related bills before Congress

09/12/2012

Stars and Stripes - September 11, 2012

Veterans advocates are optimistic that Congress will have enough time left this year to pass several meaningful initiatives for their members, starting this week with a law to replace the Stolen Valor Act.

The original act, which mandated jail time for those who falsely claimed or wore military medals, was struck down in June by the Supreme Court, whose members argued it unfairly limited free speech.

The justices wrote that a more narrowly written bill might meet constitutional standards, and lawmakers from both parties promised to revisit the issue to protect the honor of military heroes.

On Tuesday, the House was expected to approve a new version of the law, this one written by Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev. His bill would make it illegal to falsely claim military medals “with the intent to obtain money, property or anything of value.”

The Senate isn’t expected to vote on the bill until this fall, but the legislation is expected to be one of the few successes for a divided Congress that has agreed on little and put into law only a handful of measures.

Veterans groups hope it isn’t the only victory. Officials from the Veterans of Foreign Wars have listed 22 additional bills that Congress “must pass” this session, to protect veterans’ rights and benefits.

More than 70 members of the VFW’s legislative committee are on Capitol Hill this week lobbying for action on those measures, which include better employment protection for guardsmen and reservists, more job opportunities for returning veterans, and undoing $500 billion in automatic spending cuts to the Defense Department.

In its session Tuesday, the House was also expected to approve a bill mandating new counseling for veterans applying for GI Bill benefits, to ensure they understand their college options and payments.

The idea was drafted in response to criticism of for-profit schools, which have been accused of misleading student veterans into costly academic programs of questionable value. The for-profit industry has objected to those accusations but backed the counseling bill, calling it sensible assistance.

The measure also includes an unrelated provision creating a national burn pit registry, to better track health issues among troops who served near the open-air garbage fires in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Those ideas have drawn support from both parties in the Senate, but likely won’t be voted on until later this year.

Members of the Senate on Tuesday began consideration of the president’s Veterans Jobs Corps proposal, a $1 billion plan to create jobs for veterans as emergency responders, local law enforcement and national park rangers.

The idea has met strong resistance from House Republicans, who instead back proposals to retrain and credential veterans for civilian jobs.