House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) yesterday published a tweet recognizing the anniversary of a landmark law.
"On this day in 1944, the "GI Bill" became law. For over 70 years it's empowered generations of veterans."
That's right and I'm glad to see the House Speaker celebrate the occasion. But seeing Boehner's message got me thinking about whether Congress would approve the G.I. Bill if it came to the floor today.
The importance of the program should be obvious. As American soldiers returned home after their victories in World War II, FDR and most congressional lawmakers agreed the nation should invest in these veterans' education. The G.I. Bill helped about 8 million U.S. soldiers through college or job-training programs, which in turn helped bolster the American post-war middle class, and positioned the United States as the dominating global superpower in the latter half of the 20th century.
But the G.I. Bill did not pass unanimously. As msnbc's Lawrence O'Donnell, who returns to his show tonight, noted a couple of years ago, the legislation had fierce critics on the right. Conservatives of the era railed against veterans on the public "dole" and warned that the law would encourage laziness.
It's obviously speculative, but if a comparable program was under consideration on Capitol Hill now, it seems pretty easy to imagine the usual suspects balking at this kind of investment for similar reasons. As recently as 2012, the Republicans ran on a national platform that called for the elimination of most federal student aid altogether.
Indeed, in 2006, when then-Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.), both combat veterans, sponsored a measure to expand and update the G.I. Bill for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it had to overcome objections from the right. Long-time readers may recall that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said expanding the G.I. Bill would "hurt the military," and though the bill ultimately passed, all of its opponents were Republicans.
I wonder if Boehner remembers this.
In fact, there's nothing wrong with the Speaker reflecting on a bygone era, but I hope he'll remember it properly. Boehner did an interview in 2010 in which he complained, in reference to Democrats, "They're snuffing out the America that I grew up in."
But "they" really aren't. The America that Boehner grew up in invested heavily in helping families afford college education, had far higher income tax rates than anything policymakers would even consider today, featured broad union membership, and had Republicans like Eisenhower launching massive domestic infrastructure projects like the interstate highway system.
I'd like to think, 70 years later, that the G.I. Bill could still garner broad political support, but recent developments suggest otherwise.