In a move House critics say is cynical Washington politics, the Pentagon is improperly refusing to pay death benefits to military survivors despite recent legislation authorizing the gratuity.
Unidentified Pentagon officials were quoted in several sensational broadcast news reports on Tuesday as saying the government shutdown had prevented paying the $100,000 death gratuity to families of those killed in combat. The reports quoted no Pentagon officials by name.
The reports sparked outrage among congressional Democrats and liberal Republicans who blamed Congress and demanded an end to the government shutdown.
However, congressional aides told the Washington Free Beacon that the Pentagon never notified Congress that it would decline to make death payments to survivors of military personnel.
"We think they’re playing politics with the shutdown," said one senior aide.
A U.S. official said that to further highlight the issue Defense Secretary Hagel today plans to attend a ceremony at Dover Air Force Base, Del., to greet the returning remains of four soldiers.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney criticized the Pentagon for failing to make the payments.
"The nonpayment of the death gratuity by the Obama administration is the lowest point I have ever seen in the history of [the Defense Department]," McInerney said in an email. "It is clearly within the authority of President Obama to pay this death gratuity to these four families plus their travel costs to Dover. All six members of the JCS should meet with the president and if he does not meet their request they should resign en masse. Their job is to take care of the troops. The president is not."
"The Department of Defense's refusal to pay the death gratuity or burial benefit is inexcusable," said Chairman of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.).
"The grieving families of our service members who have paid the ultimate sacrifice defending our country deserve these benefits," he said in a statement. "It was Congress' intent when we passed the ‘Pay Our Military Act’ that these benefits be provided without question to our military families."
Wilson said the failure to make the payments "confirms that the administration is trying to inflict as much pain as possible on our nation's most vulnerable people during the government shutdown."
Wilson wrote a letter to Hagel on Friday questioning the Pentagon’s refusal to pay the death benefit and a $10,500 burial allowance as part of the pay act.
Wilson said the Pay Our Military Act passed by Congress and signed into law by the president last week provides appropriations for pay and allowances to the military, defense civilians, and contractors.
The Pentagon is conducting a legal review of the legislation and Wilson said he is concerned "further delays may interrupt essential pays and allowances."
"We cannot in good conscience deny these benefits to the survivors of deceased members," Wilson stated.
Included with the letter is a list of pay and allowances for the military that includes the death gratuity.
"I request that you provide me a summary of which of the pays and allowances on that list that will not be paid and the rationale for non-payment," Wilson said. "If there are other pays and allowances not on the attached list, I ask that you identify them in your response with an explanation of whether they will be paid or not."
A Pentagon spokesman had no immediate comment on why the Pentagon is not paying death benefits.
The Pentagon said in a statement regarding a meeting Monday between Hagel and the military service chiefs that "the department does not currently have the authority to pay death gratuities for the survivors of service members killed in action." The payment is typically made within three days of the death of a service member, he said.
The response of the service chiefs was not included in the statement.
House Speaker John Boehner also criticized the failure of the administration to pay the death benefits
"We gave broad authority to the Department of Defense to pay all kinds of bills including this," Boehner (R., Ohio) said Tuesday. "And frankly I think it's disgraceful that they're withholding these benefits. But again tomorrow the House is going to act specifically on this and I hope the President will sign it."
The House on Wednesday unanimously passed legislation to ensure the benefits are paid to fallen troops.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, also expressed anger at the Pentagon’s failure to pay death benefits.
"It is outrageous that the president has temporarily halted death benefits for fallen Americans who have given the ultimate sacrifice," McKeon said.
McKeon and Wilson also criticized the failure of the Pentagon to pay civilians at military service academies.
"I am no less concerned that restrictions on our military academies puts the next generation of heroes at risk," McKeon said. "Congress provided the president broad latitude to keep these programs running through a shutdown."
McKeon said in a statement that he is urging the president to use the authorities granted by Congress in the recent legislation to pay the death benefits and civilian academy teachers.
"Certain things should transcend politics," McKeon said. "The responsibilities of commander-in-chief sit atop that list."
Congressional aides said the administration made no formal notice that it would not pay the death benefits.
The only comments about the issue were made by Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale during a conference call with House members Oct. 5, and during a press conference Sept. 27. Hale said at the press conference three days before the Pay Our Military act was signed into law that that one of the limits on the Pentagon would be that "we couldn’t immediately pay death gratuities to those who die on active duty during the lapse."
Hale also mentioned the cut off in the conference call after the legislation was signed but aides said his comments did not represent formal notification to Congress.
The law states allows the Pentagon to "appropriate funds to pay the military at any time in FY 2014 when appropriations are not in effect."
It also permits "the government to keep paying civilian personnel and contractors that the Defense Department deems to be helping the military."
Majority Leader Harry Reid denounced the ban as "shameful and embarrassing."
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) criticized Congress for the failure to pay the death benefits.
"Shouldn’t we as a body, Republican or Democrat—shouldn’t we be embarrassed? Ashamed?" McCain said in a floor speech. "What do American people think when they see that death benefit for those who served and sacrifice—they're not eligible?"