Protecting families of fallen service members from another government shutdown
The president is once again rooting for a “good government shutdown.” This is a reckless and irresponsible threat. We have a fundamental obligation to keep government open, and I think members of both parties can agree that there are no winners in a government shutdown.
Budget brinksmanship has many victims, notably among which are the grieving families of fallen service members.
When a military family loses a loved one serving on active duty, they are entitled to a lump sum payment that constitutes a small and partial measure of our nation’s gratitude for that service member’s ultimate sacrifice. However, during a government shutdown, the Department of Defense cannot make these payments. This is unconscionable.
It is estimated that more than 30 military families lost a loved one during the 2013 and 2018 shutdowns. Instead of receiving the support they deserved during a period of mourning and immense pain, the families were denied a financial lifeline long promised to them. This system is not working for our military families, and we need to fix it.
Thankfully, Keith Humphrey and his family had access to this support when his son-in-law, Marine Sgt. Michael Martins, was killed in an accident in 2009. For his daughter, the military death gratuity meant she could bury her husband in their hometown cemetery as she began her life without him. The resources were immediately available. This is how it should always work.
Following the 16-day shutdown in 2013, Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) and I introduced the Families of Fallen Service Members First Act, which would provide for the payment of military death gratuities in the event of a lapse in federal appropriations. Thanks to Keith’s tireless advocacy, we have built a coalition working to enact this reform. The bill has 200 co-sponsors and the support of nearly two dozen veterans organizations.
This groundswell of grassroots support has created momentum for the legislation. The Senate and House Defense Appropriations bills moving through Congress include provisions that would help enact our bill’s reforms to military death gratuity payments.
The House bill, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support last week, would authorize the Secretary of Defense to make gratuity payments out of the Defense Health Program – an account that receives two-year funding and is insulated from a brief government shutdown. Those payments would be reimbursed to the Defense Health Program once a government funding bill is enacted. The House reform would also be permanent. The Senate provision is similar but uses a different account to make the payments during a shutdown. The Senate provides just a one-year fix that would require Congress to revisit the issue in annual appropriations bills.
I am agnostic on the funding mechanism as long as it protects military families from budget gridlock. However, our goal must be certainty and peace of mind for these families, and I am therefore advocating for a permanent fix.
The military death gratuity payment is more than just a financial transaction with a family in need. It is part of our sacred compact we have with our men and women in uniform and their families. These heroes should know that if they do not return home from a deployment, their families will receive the benefits they have earned through their service and sacrifice on behalf of the United States.
That seems obvious and simple, yet Congress has fallen short of this standard. And that should outrage every American. But from that outrage, we can forge a bipartisan consensus to ensure that we never again abandon the families of fallen service members. The Families of Fallen Service Members First Act will help right this wrong.