Kaptur: The GI Bill, almost defeated, turns 70Written by Guest Author | | GuestAuthor@toledofreepress.com
This year we are commemorating several important historical events, including the D-Day invasion. Another such landmark event was the enactment of the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, also known as the GI Bill of Rights, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law on June 22, 1944.
The GI Bill represented an unprecedented investment in America’s service members and veterans. The federal government, recognizing the sacrifices and contributions of those leaving military service, committed vast resources to education, housing and training for the men and women who were fighting the war and would soon be coming back home.
What is not widely known is that the bill almost died in Congress.
President Roosevelt had laid out the objectives of a GI Bill almost a year earlier during one of his famous “fireside chats” on the radio. He had proposed providing returning veterans with mustering-out pay, but also significant social programs such as government-paid health care and educational benefits.
President Roosevelt also recognized that the bill would stimulate the economy as it eventually made the transition from war footing to peacetime. By making this massive investment in people, the federal government helped lay the groundwork for what became the greatest economic expansion in world history.
But even while the American soldiers were hitting the beaches at Normandy, some members of Congress were fighting the bill on ideological grounds.
What motivated the opposition to the GI Bill was President Roosevelt’s proposal for unemployment insurance for returning soldiers known as the 52-20 plan (up to 52 weeks of unemployment compensation at $20 a week).
The bill had passed the House unanimously, but the Senate version differed slightly, and opponents mounted a rear guard action to defeat it in conference committee.
They claimed that jobless benefits would help only the “lazy” and diminish the incentive for returning veterans to find work. The American Legion, which led the charge on behalf of the bill, countered that all the returning veterans would be unemployed at least temporarily when they returned stateside.
Nonetheless, opponents successfully bottled up the bill in conference committee and appeared to have killed it.
Faced with imminent defeat, the American Legion and other supporters saved the day by arranging to transport Rep. John S. Gibson, who was recuperating from a serious illness at his home in rural Georgia, back to Washington in an overnight flight from Jacksonville, Florida.
Congressman Gibson arrived in the early morning hours of June 12 and cast the tie-breaking vote in conference committee. The Senate passed the bill in its final form that same day, and the House followed suit the next day.
“It gives emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down,” President Roosevelt said at the signing ceremony.
As it turned out, the opposition to jobless benefits proved to be unfounded: less than 20 percent of the funds set aside for unemployment compensation were ever used. Meanwhile, millions of veterans were able to restart their lives as civilians by taking advantage of low-cost loans for homes, farms and businesses. Millions more were able to afford college thanks to the educational benefit.
And this year, we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the GI Bill, which is widely recognized as one of the most successful pieces of legislation in our nation’s history.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) is the U.S. Representative for Ohio’s 9th Congressional District. For more information, visit her website at kaptur.house.gov.