Republican members of Congress took Pentagon officials to task today, demanding to know why the Pentagon decided to cut off the death gratuity to the surviving families of service members during the government shutdown. The Republican members of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness also argued that the Pay Our Military Act enacted the day before the shutdown should have prevented the eventual furlough of 400,000 Defense Department civilians.
Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Va., chairman of the subcommittee, expressed frustration with the Pentagon's conclusion that it did not have the authority to continue providing $100,000 in death gratuity payments during the shutdown.
"I was shocked and angered when I learned that five of our nation's heroes died in Afghanistan over the weekend and their families informed that benefits couldn't be paid," Wittman said.
The death benefits "provide a small amount of financial support as families grieve so that during the most harrowing of times they can focus on what matters most," he added.
Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale told the subcommittee that attorneys from the Justice Department, the Office of Management and Budget and the Pentagon's General Counsel had concluded that the payouts were not possible during the shutdown. "We just don't have the legal authority," Hale said. "And I don't think you want us to start going around the law."
The Pentagon announced Wednesday a partnership with the Fisher House Foundation in which that organization would pay the amount of the death gratuity, as well as other costs associated with the death of active-duty military personnel. After the shutdown ends, Hale said, the Defense Department will reimburse the costs to the charity.
Separately, both houses of Congress have unanimously passed legislation that would allow for the payment of the death gratuity to continue during the shutdown. As of Wednesday, 29 military service members had died on active duty since the start of the shutdown.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., authored the Pay Our Military Act that allowed for military service members to continue to be paid during a government shutdown. It also allowed for Defense Department civilians supporting their efforts to be paid as well. But the Pentagon told 400,000 civilians the day after it was enacted that they were going on unpaid furlough.
Coffman said his legislation "cast as wide a net as possible to ensure that the department's civilian personnel, all of whom are necessary to support military operations, can report to work."
He said the Pentagon's decision to furlough the employees disregarded the law's intent to prevent that from happening.
"Unfortunately, the Department of Defense took it upon itself to disregard the will of the American people and violate a law that had unanimous support of Congress and the signature of the commander in chief," Coffman said.
He went further, saying he believed there was "a deliberate decision by the Department of Defense to misinterpret the Pay Our Military Act for political purposes."
Hale, the Pentagon comptroller, described the law as "loosely worded" and said it "did not provide legal authority for a blanket recall of all DOD civilians."
He explained that if the law's intent really had been to recall all the Department's civilian employees, it should have said "'recall all civilians.' It did not."
More problematic, he said, was the language that required the Defense secretary to make a determination on who would be recalled. Hale said that led Pentagon and Justice Department attorneys to conclude that the legislation "clearly implied that a blanket recall was not supported."
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., criticized the Pentagon for having consulted the Justice Department, which he described as being "totally politicized."
"It is a political arm of promoting the policies of the president of the United States. It is not unbiased," Wilson said.
Coffman accused Hale of having "compromised" his responsibilities" and of a conflict of interest "to achieve a political objective."
"And the political objective was to make, inflict as much harm as you possibly could in your own department," Coffman said.
Coffman chided Hale and the Pentagon's attorneys for their interpretation of the Pay Our Military Act. "You went out of your way at every possible turn to make this as ugly as possible, to inflict as much pain as possible on this department," he said. "And I just think it's absolutely extraordinary."
Hale told Coffman he resented his remarks and to "let the record show that."
"I acted on the advice of attorneys and our best reading of a loosely worded law, and we did our best."
He added: "it was not a political judgment. We were trying to do what we thought the law said, that a determination was required. And, as I said, I resent your remarks."
As of today, he said, 7,000 of the Defense Department's 800,000 civilian employees remain on unpaid furloughs.