House: We Authorized the Death Gratuity. Why Won’t They Pay It?

I just chatted with a House aide who argues that the “death gratuity” — the $100,000 payment to families of U.S. servicemen — was originally covered by legislation passed by both Houses and signed into law, and that there is no reason for the Pentagon to claim they don’t have the funds or the authority to pay out those benefits.

“In the last week of September, the Department of Defense’s Comptroller Robert Hale warned that the death gratuity and other benefits would be affected by shutdown,” this aide said. “Following week, Congress passed, and the President signed the Pay Our Military Act which included authorization for all military benefits. Everyone felt relieved, believing military pay and benefits are protected.”

Then Thursday and Friday of last week, the aide said he and other Republican colleagues started to hear whispers from third parties that there was a problem with death gratuity. The House wasn’t notified by the Obama administration or made aware that Department of Defense felt they lacked authorization to pay that benefit.

On Friday, in response to the rumors, Representative Joe Wilson sent this letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asking whether there was a problem with paying the death gratuity or other benefits, and whether this or any other benefits required specific authorizations from Congress.

There was never a response from Obama Administration or DoD to the congressional inquiry.

“Tuesday morning, we learn on NBC’s Today Show — not from DoD — that there are four KIAs coming home, and their families will not receive the death gratuity,” the aide said. “The only warning we had was from George Little on Twitter.

He’s referring to this tweet “Congress needs to act to end ‪#shutdown. Awful that we do not currently have authority to pay death gratuities for families of fallen heroes.”

The Wilson letter to Hagel specifically asked about the death gratuity, as well as benefits for covering burial costs.

“What legal justifications are Pentagon lawyers using to say they did not have authorization to pay the death gratuity?” this aide asks. “ What other benefits will DoD retroactively decide they cannot pay? Will we have to vote for every benefit, despite the broad authorization that we gave them in the Pay Our Military Act?”

The House is scheduled to vote on the bill specifically stating that the Pentagon is authorized to pay out the death gratuity.

“I don’t know why DoD felt like they needed authorization for this single benefit out of 60 or so, but even my cynical brain is unwilling to contemplate the possibility that the Obama administration’s sudden interest in fundamentalist interpretations of the law is related to heroes coming home to us in a box,” the aide concludes.

UPDATE: More from David French in the Corner:

Through a rather simple, good-faith drafting error, Congress gave the secretary of defense room to maneuver on the delivery of benefits to military families, and the Department of Defense’s civilian masters have made an incredible choice, one that no line unit in the military would ever make if it had control over funding for its own soldiers and their families: to exclude death benefits from the “pay and allowances” appropriated by Congress. There are two simple fixes. The simplest is for the Department of Defense to interpret the statute consistent with Congress’s intent and fund military benefits. The second is to pass correcting any ambiguity in the Pay Our Military Act. If the DOD doesn’t act, the House will, and surely the Senate will follow. Or will you, Senator Reid?

ANOTHER UPDATE: Today the House of Representatives voted, 425–0, to authorize the expenditure of funds for the death gratuity.

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