Lawmakers are demanding answers from Defense Department officials after reports that California National Guard leaders are forcing veterans to repay generous recruitment bonuses a decade after they enlisted because of clerical errors.
But it's not clear whether Congress will take any action to address the issue when members return from their election recess next month.
On Saturday, a Los Angeles Times investigation uncovered nearly 10,000 soldiers involved in the enlistment bonus scandal, some of whom are facing significant financial hardships because of the California Guard's actions.
Many of the veterans were enticed to enlist by bonuses topping $10,000, and later served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. But recent audits by defense officials showed widespread overpayments in the program, originally designed to recruit only a select number of high-demand specialties.
The military's response has been to demand that veterans who should not have qualified for the payouts to return the money now, with interest.
Lawmakers called that ridiculous.
"It is disgraceful that the men and women who answered their country's call to duty following September 11 are now facing forced repayments of bonuses offered to them," said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in a statement Sunday.
"Our military heroes should not shoulder the burden of military recruiters' faults from over a decade ago. They should not owe for what was promised during a difficult time in our country."
Fellow California Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, called the news shocking and unacceptable.
"I have reached out to both the California National Guard and the Pentagon for an explanation into this matter," she said in a statement. "It is important that we address this issue immediately. Many veterans cannot afford to be billed by the country they gave years of their life to protect."
In a statement to the Times, California Guard Deputy Commander Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers said officials have considered absolving the debt, but "we just can’t do it. We’d be breaking the law."
So far, congressional leaders have not indicated a quick legislative fix to the matter.
House Speaker Paul Ryan is scheduled to campaign in California this week on behalf of Republican candidates, and is likely to face questions on the issue. McCarthy said he'll be requesting "a full brief from Army and National Guard leadership" and promised further investigation.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and ranking member on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, on Sunday called for Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to make the issue a top priority during the lame-duck session.
"The solution to this ridiculous situation is an act of Congress," he said in a statement. "I am also calling on the California National Guard and the Department of Defense to immediately suspend all efforts to retrieve improper payments while a legislative fix is passed.
"This country owes a debt to our service members that we can never fully repay. It should never be the other way around."
On Monday, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said he has begun drafting a legislative fix with hopes of addressing the issue as soon as possible. In a letter, he urged to California National Guard leaders and Pentagon officials to stop the debt collections as Congress conducts a thorough investigation."
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s veterans and military construction panel, echoed that call.
"The administration should immediately intervene in the current collections and Congress should legislate a fix to prevent this mistake from growing larger," he said in a statement Sunday. "These families have sacrificed enough and should not have to pay for mistakes of government bureaucrats."
Congress is scheduled to return to Capitol Hill on Nov. 14. Follow @LeoShane
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.