Not Just a Bill
by The Opportunity Agenda, Thu Jun 05, 2008 at 12:46:06 PM EDT
A surreal debate is playing out on Capitol Hill over a proposed expansion of the GI Bill of Rights. Bi-partisan coalitions in the House and Senate want to increase college support under the law to give a new, promising start to veterans who've served at least three years in the military. President Bush and John McCain oppose the bill, ostensibly on the ground that it would motivate too many soldiers to seek college over re-enlistment. But the Congressional Budget Office estimates that an augmented GI Bill would increase the number of new recruits by about the same amount that it would coax out of the armed forces.
So what's really going on? The GI Bill is not just a bill. Through its values, its language, its history and impact, it embodies a profoundly progressive vision of opportunity, linked to a populist form of patriotism. That combination is especially threatening to the conservative elite.
First, it's a "bill of rights"--a phrase and idea that derive from our most cherished constitutional foundation. The bill conveys not benefits or privileges, but rights that veterans hold by virtue of their service to our country.
Second, it's an economic bill of rights, tied to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's vision of a "Second Bill of Rights" for all Americans that included not only "the right to a good education," but also "the right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;...the right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad; the right of every family to a decent home;...the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; [and] the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment...."
That vision connects us to internationally-recognized economic and social human rights, embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that recognizes a similar range of economic and social rights, as well as civil and political rights like the right to freedom of speech and religion. While the United States, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, helped to craft and elevate the Universal Declaration at the end of World War II, presidential administrations of both parties have largely opposed the notion of economic and social human rights since the start of the Cold War. Polling by The Opportunity Agenda shows that large majorities of Americans, however, recognize and support the economic rights that the Roosevelts worked to advance.
Fourth, the history and impact of the original GI Bill of Rights demonstrate how expanding opportunity advances our national interests and the common good. The GI Bill helped an entire generation of Americans--and America itself--to take a giant leap toward shared prosperity. It instigated a wave of ingenuity, innovation, entrepreneurship, productivity, and mobility from which our country continues to benefit sixty years later.
Finally, expanding the Bill of Rights today will make plain the connection between those progressive ideals and the men and women now serving in our military--a connection that conservatives have successfully undermined (often with progressive assistance) since the days of the Vietnam War.
The original GI Bill of Rights was almost defeated by Southern conservative lawmakers, Democrats, who opposed higher education and economic mobility for returning African-American veterans. Today, conservatives' objections may be expressed differently, but they rest on similarly ideological grounds. Today, as in 1944, the GI Bill is not just a bill.