Monday, October 28, 2013

Will Congress Let Tax Credit Expire For Employers Who Hire Veterans?

As I recently reported here, Congress is once again trying to give America's heroes the shaft. Congressional Republicans, led by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and some Democrats want to change how inflation is calculated by adopting a so-called “chained consumer price index," or Chained CPI. This would mean lower benefits for more than 3 million veterans, including those who were seriously wounded in combat. 

America's disabled veterans already face an insultingly small 1.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) next year - the smallest increase since these automatic adjustments were adopted nearly 40 years ago. 

As if all that weren’t enough of an insult, word from inside the Beltway is that the federal tax credit that offers companies real incentives to hire veterans is about to expire. And Congress has done nothing about it - at least not yet.

Back in 2011, President Obama proposed a "Returning Heroes Tax Credit" for companies that hire unemployed veterans. "Our companies need skilled workers like our veterans to grow, and there's no reason why we can't connect the two," he said at the time.

But the tax credit, which gives companies up to $9,600 for hiring a veteran, is set to expire at the end of the year. 

President Obama called for the credit to become permanent as part of his proposed 2014 budget. But as everyone is painfully aware, Congress hasn't passed a comprehensive budget since 2009. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn), a former Marine, today announced his plans to introduce a bill in the next few weeks that extends the tax credit until the end of 2016.

The veteran unemployment rate has been on a roller coaster ride in the first four months of 2013, moving from 7.6% to 6.9% to 7.1% to 6.2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

But the most significant and alarming fact is that unemployment among post-9/11 veterans was 10.1% in September, up from 10% in August and 9.7% the year prior, according to BLS.

The tax credit extension to companies who hire out-of-work veterans is a no-brainer. Congress needs to step up and meet its collective word to take care of our former warriors. I’ll be keeping a close eye on any member of Congress who opposes this much-needed legislation, and will name names.

And I suggest that pols on either side of the aisle who are trying to lower the already absurdly low cost-of-living benefits increase for our wounded warriors just step off. It’s a bad idea.

This all reminds me of a story I covered last year for The Daily Beast about a Senator who held up veterans' benefits in order to stage a cynical and lame political stunt. 

The then-unidentified pol, who I've since learned is Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, opted to place a secret hold, for months, on a routine bill for a COLA increase for military veterans and surviving spouses. 

My message to him and other members of Congress? Stop messing with America's heroes!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Laughter & Betrayal: Is Johnny Carson's New Biographer a Traitor?

Like many of you, I have a deep affection for Johnny Carson. My reverence for the television icon, who hosted The Tonight Show from 1962 to 1992, dates back as far as I can remember. I was never too proud to beg my parents to let me stay up and watch his monologue, which always made me laugh even before I understood all the political and sexual references. 

As an Iowa boy with big dreams, I guess I saw a bit of myself in Johnny, who, like me, is from the Hawkeye State. Contrary to popular belief, Johnny wasn't born in Nebraska. He was born in a small Iowa town called Corning. He moved with his family to Nebraska at a young age. Johnny, who died in 2005, never lost his Midwestern sensibility. But he was a complex man. 

A fascinating hybrid of urbane and homespun, he was not a phony. But he was difficult. Reliably charming and quick-witted, Johnny could be very kind, at least when he was sober. And his undeniably large ego never prevented him from letting his guests shine. There was goodness and decency in him. But as many have pointed out over the years, and which Johnny never denied, the man had his demons. Johnny had a fiery temper and was at times emotionally unavailable. He could even be cruel if he felt he was being crossed. 

A comedic genius who creatively emulated all his comedy heroes - Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason - Johnny was a solitary soul who was prone to cynicism. A bit of a fatalist, he never seemed entirely comfortable in his own skin. And according to numerous accounts, he sadly never got the love and recognition he craved from his cold-hearted mother.

Which brings me to the latest biography of Johnny, which I've just finished reading. Presumptuously titled Johnny Carson, the book was written by Henry Bushkin, Johnny's longtime attorney and allegedly close friend. Loyal Carson fans will recall that Bushkin was often hilariously referenced in Johnny's nightly monologues as "Bombastic Bushkin." But after reading this book, let me suggest that "Traitor Bushkin" or "Turncoat Bushkin" would be a better nickname.

Bushkin's book is somewhat well crafted and often compelling. But it is utterly devoid of shame or conscience. 

Bushkin says that Johnny once told him after a drunken confessional, “You must never, ever repeat a word from last night." To which Bushkin responded, “I would lose my license if during your lifetime I repeated it to a soul.”

But apparently after your client and friend dies, all bets are off. Loyalty ends at the funeral parlor - at least for Bombastic Bushkin.

Here's the rub: Carson fired Bushkin after two decades of service. So this book stinks of revenge. Henry's just getting even. But they were never "even." Carson was a gifted and beloved entertainer; Bushkin is just a lawyer who made a ton of money working for Johnny and now stands to make even more.

He is a pretty good writer – assuming, which I probably shouldn't, that Henry didn't have lots of help. The book is hard to put down. That is, it's hard to stop reading. I can easily "put it down" for being a shameful betrayal of a friend.

Without giving anything away, I can tell you that the book tells us all the things about Carson that we already knew. With new details, yes, but nothing all that revelatory.  

Did Johnny have a drinking problem early in his career and could he be a mean, nasty drunk? Yes. We already knew that. Did he have a very difficult time warming up to people  and was he, for the most part, a wildly ambitious and almost pathologically private man with few real friends? Yep. We knew that, too. Did Johnny often carry a gun in his car? Yes. Knew it. Did he have deep-seated issues with women and was he unfaithful? Again, yes and yes. Tell me something we don't know, Henry. Please.

It's ironic, or perhaps not, that Bushkin, one of the few people Johnny genuinely trusted after attaining great wealth and fame, would turn around and betray Johnny's trust so completely. I guess Johnny's often distrusting nature was justified after all. 

Lawyer and author Henry Bushkin
Obviously Bushkin is deeply conflicted. But when he suggests that Johnny, who was a big fan of honesty, would appreciate this book, he fools himself and offends me.

In the book's final chapter, Bushkin writes, "I do like to think that he (Johhny) would have been happy with this book. I've tried to show him in all his complexity; in his huge talent and great vivacity, and with his tremendous appeal and charisma and sense of fun, and also with his failures and shortcomings and even cruelties. A man so suspicious of flattery and sentimentality might have appreciated my attempt to paint an accurate portrait of the most thrilling, fun, frustrating and mysterious relationship of my life - a portrait of a man I loved."

If this is love, I'd hate to know what Bushkin would write about someone he hates. As I read this book, I kept envisioning Johnny looking down on Henry's epic betrayal and just shaking his head in disbelief and disappointment. 

But there is at least one man who worked with Johnny every night who is still around to respond to Bushkin's trashy tome. Doc Severinsen, the legendary trumpet player and longtime bandleader on The Tonight Show, told The Buffalo News on Saturday that Bushkin became estranged from Johnny after he accused Bushkin of negligence and malpractice.

Doc Severinsen
“I didn’t have any personal problems with him except it seems that he was released from Johnny’s employ over a matter to do with some questionable behavior,” Severinsen said. “There may have been an agreement, something like ‘Sign this paper and go away.’ I have no business going beyond that.”

He added, “I feel he might be desperate for money or something, or someone said to him, ‘Did you work with Carson? You did? Why don’t you write about it in a book?’ That says it all.”

I don't know the details behind Johnny's decision to fire Bushkin. But Severinsen said Johnny was "a good boss because he was a fair boss. He didn’t snoop in there about what you were doing. If you repeatedly did something that he didn’t feel was right, he’d call you in and talk about it. He was fair. He was very fair, and he knew everything that was going on. As Henry Bushkin found out.”

Monday, October 14, 2013

EXCLUSIVE FIRST LOOK: Powerful Print Ad Urging Congress Not to Cut Veterans' Benefits Running Tonight Nationwide

Dear readers of The Reno Dispatch

For your information and edification I'm giving you an exclusive first look at this ad, which is running on web and print media nationwide starting tonight. 

The strongly worded missive urges Congress to leave cuts to veterans' benefits and Social Security out of any budget deal. 

It was paid for by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and developed by a consortium of 20 veterans organizations, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), AMVETS, Veterans for Common Sense (VCS), and The American Legion. 

Please tell me what you think of the ad in the comments section below.


EXCLUSIVE: Congress Trying to Cut Future Benefits for Disabled Veterans

Rep. Paul Ryan trying to cut veterans'  benefits
America’s veterans are caught in the crossfire of the current budget war in Washington, and more political shrapnel is evidently on the way. We already know that disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will run out in as little as two weeks. But now there's chatter that even if the government shutdown ends before these VA funds deplete, disability benefits for our wounded warriors could be cut for next year.

Disabled veterans face a paltry 1.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) next year, but congressional Republicans, led by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), are pushing to cut veterans’ benefits even more.

House Republicans and some Democrats want to change how inflation is calculated by adopting a so-called “chained consumer price index.” This chained CPI would lower benefits for disabled veterans.

“I find it incomprehensible that any serious person would believe that a 1.5 percent COLA is too generous and would want to enact a chained CPI which would make these COLA's even lower,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said this morning.

Senate Veterans' Affairs  Chairman Bernie Sanders
“This is an attack not only on disabled veterans and seniors but other people with disabilities. It cannot be allowed to succeed,” Sanders said.

The projected 1.5 percent cost-of-living raise next year would be among the smallest since automatic increases were adopted in 1975. A chained CPI would make substantial cuts to benefits of more than 3 million former warriors. The largest cuts would impact young, permanently disabled veterans who were seriously wounded in combat.

It would also impact more than 350,000 survivors who receive service-connected death benefits. Veterans who started receiving VA disability benefits at age 30 would have their benefits reduced by $1,425 at age 45, $2,341 at age 55 and $3,231 at age 65.

This is all disturbingly reminiscent of a story I covered last year for The Daily Beast about a Senator who held up veterans' benefits to stage a cynical and lame political stunt. The then-unidentified Senate Republican, who I learned later was Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, opted to place a secret hold, for months, on a routine bill for a COLA increase for military veterans and surviving spouses. 

That action was just a foreshadowing of what some members of this Congress are obviously willing to do to make their point.

Paul Sullivan, a respected veteran advocate who now works at Bergmann & Moore, a law firm that represents disabled veterans, told me last year, “Veterans already jump through enough hoops to obtain disability benefits. Delaying what should be an automatic process increases uncertainty in the lives of our veterans, and that is wrong.”

The short-lived hold last year came just one day after Senate Republicans blocked passage of the Veterans Jobs Corps Act of 2012, which would have established a $1 billion program putting veterans to work on federal lands and in local police and fire departments.

No telling yet just how severe an impact this current budget impasse will have on veterans, but it is realistic to expect substantial cuts in veterans’ benefits. And this is inexcusable.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Memo to House Republicans: Own This Shutdown!!

Jon Stewart and his now infamous sidekick
I try not to be partisan on this news blog. As you all know, and as my lovely and very liberal wife can attest, I've been harshly critical of both parties, especially when it comes to their treatment of America's veterans. But c'mon, man, this is getting ridiculous. It's time the House Republicans responsible for this government shutdown removed one of their two faces and owned this thing. They've been talking about a shutdown as a winning strategy against Obamacare for months, and they all seemed quite giddy when they pulled it off last week.

At this point, though, it doesn't appear they're going to claim it, despite the hilarious and on-the-mark plea last night from The Daily Show's Jon Stewart. "You think Obamacare's a big enough threat to this country that you need to shut down the government over it?" asked Stewart. "Fine! Own it! Don't fart and point at the dog!"

The House Republicans' new strategy is indeed to break wind and then point fingers. They're now calling this mess the "Democrats' shutdown," which is demonstrably preposterous. 

Here's the deal: The radical wing of the GOP, which hates President Obama with every fiber of its being, is still fervently debating a bill that has already become law - and the rest of the Republican members of the House don't have the stuffing to speak up. 

The party has dug in its heels on this strategy - all but a few brave dissenters, anyway. And Obama doesn't appear willing to negotiate until Republicans agree to fund the government. 

So where does that leave our veterans? Up Shit Creek without a boat, evidently.

At a news conference this morning on Capitol Hill, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told us what we already know: the government shutdown is really hurting veterans.

He reminded us that thousands of Department of Veterans Affairs workers have been laid off, that the national call center for veterans wanting to take advantage of college benefits under the GI Bill has been shut down, and that VA offices that do personal interviews and hearings at regional offices for veterans seeking benefits are closed.

He said this shutdown is "hurting our entire country. It is especially difficult for our veterans’ community.” What he did not do was offer up any solutions. 

Sanders, a rare and refreshing straight shooter who's always been an outspoken and effective advocate for veterans, introduced legislation the night the government was shut down last week that would assure that veterans would be paid no matter how long the government was closed. 

But he now seems to be saying that the only solution is for the House Republicans to stop the madness.

It's pretty clear now that both sides are willing to let veterans and many other Americans suffer in order to save political face.

Sanders stated today that if this disastrous scenario occurs, "over four million veterans, service-members and survivors will not get the benefits they have been promised and depend upon. Without the necessary funds, VA will not be able to pay an average of $6.25 billion in monthly compensation, pension, education, and vocational rehabilitation benefits. That is an unimaginable disaster.”

Sanders explained that if the shutdown persists, November compensation payments to more than 3.8 million veterans will stop, as will payments to more than 364,000 survivors and over 1,200 children receiving special benefits. Pension payments will stop for almost 315,000 veterans and over 202,000 surviving spouses and dependents, and educational benefits will stop for more than half a million students. 

“Our veterans are not wealthy. Many of them depend on these benefits to feed themselves and their families, to pay their rent, to make ends meet,” Sanders said. “Our veterans deserve better."

I agree, Senator. Veterans deserve much better. But if the Republicans don't come to the table, what's your plan?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Stop Using America's War Veterans As Political Pawns

Enough is enough, America!! While it is inexcusable to let any citizen suffer because of a political impasse, it is unconscionable to punish our war veterans, to cynically use them as pawns in an obscene political chess match. But that's precisely what we're doing. Right now. Shame on us. All of us.
Tomorrow morning, a group of Senators including Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), will hold a news conference at which they promise to highlight in some detail the damaging impact the government shutdown is having on veterans.
But this well-meaning presser will not likely result in any meaningful action. I don't think any of these lawmakers have any rabbits to pull out of their Congressional top hats. 

Meanwhile, anxiety is growing nationwide. Countless sources of mine in the veteran community are asking me today what the hell is going on. No one is sure just where all of this is headed, but what we do know is that if this absurd legislative soap opera continues, America's veterans will lose many of their VA benefits as soon as three weeks from now.

A statement released today from VA’s media office read the following: 
“Claims processing and payments in the compensation, pension, education and vocational rehabilitation programs are anticipated to continue through late October. However, in the event of a prolonged shutdown, claims processing and payments in these programs would be suspended when available funding is exhausted.”
We also know that the Veterans Benefits Administration has furloughed 7,000 of its workers, which is about one-third of its staff. As a result, VBA’s regional offices across the country are closed as of this morning.

The shutdown also threatens to reverse the efforts VA has finally made in recent months to shrink the enormous backlog of unprocessed claims.
And that's just scratching the surface. All of this must stop. I'm sure most Americans, whatever your political beliefs, agree that our veterans are heroes and must not be punished for political gain. They've already sacrificed enough.