Imagery is powerful. At this year’s State of the Union, the President of the United States showcased one of the last living Tuskegee airmen, Charles McGhee, age 100, and made him a brigadier general. It was a well-deserved honor, but one that Donald Trump used as political theatre. Our soldiers and veterans deserve better.
The U.S. Army that General McGhee served in was segregated. It was cruel, and unrelenting to black soldiers whose only aim was to fight for their country during World War II. President Truman integrated the military services in 1946 by executive order, and black soldiers have made great strides since that time. As the product of a military family, I feel strongly that playing politics with our veterans is unacceptable; I have no patience for it.
Take HR 5050, the Veterans and Consumers Fair Credit Act, which would modernize our financial laws and protect American consumers from predatory lenders by establishing a national rate cap on most loans.
That’s a noble goal; the problem is that HR 5050 doesn’t do anything to protect veterans in particular. Respected former military leaders have complained that HR 5050 does not contain as much as a “single specific provision for veterans.” Which begs the question, why bother suggesting that a bill is going to help veterans when it won’t?
The answer to that question captures almost everything that is wrong with our modern political discourse: putting veterans in general (and black veterans in particular) in the crosshairs of a years-long ideological battle. The title is just a sleight-of-hand trick to try and attract enough “yes” votes to pass it.
Rep. Maxine Waters, the California Democrat in charge of the House Financial Services Committee (the committee responsible for HR 5050), has been working tirelessly since 2018 to keep peace between committee progressives and moderate Democratic lawmakers. Outspoken freshmen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Katie Porter, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley, all members of the committee, have been pushing agendas that include a federal interest rate cap on loans, abolition of many innovative financial products, and even turning the United States Post Office into a pseudo-bank.
The committee has floated drafts of several bills to accomplish these goals, but each bill has faltered, lacking support from moderate Democrats and vulnerable Republicans. Which is why, late last year, the committee repackaged their financial reform bill as a “veterans protection” bill.
I don’t envy Waters’ position. She has a very fine needle to thread, with lots of competing interests and conflicting ideologies. The rebranding of HR 5050 might be part-pressure tactic, part-compromise. Centrists and vulnerable Republicans may have a hard time voting against sweeping changes to America’s financial system, but supporting veteran protections carries nearly universal popularity.
That tactic might be working. Waters even found a Republican to co-sponsor HR 5050, albeit one who is not on the Financial Services Committee and one who may not understand the consequences of his actions. Rep. Glenn Grothman, of Wisconsin, broke with his party to support the bill, and is currently championing it on Capitol Hill and Twitter, selling the near-universal appeal of so-called “veterans’ protections.”
The popular appeal, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, of passing a bill to help veterans is easy to understand, particularly among people of color. Any time veterans are harmed, black veterans are harmed the most. More than 17 percent of active-duty enlisted men, and nearly 30 percent of active-duty enlisted women, are African-American. But over thirty percent of veterans experiencing homelessness are African-American, compared with 12.3 percent of the general veteran population. Minority veterans have a 44 percent higher risk of unemployment than do white veterans. Black veterans are twice as likely to live in poverty as other veterans.
But HR 5050 won’t fix any of that. Instead, it uses veterans’ issues as a talking point, a headline, political theater. Rather, this is a cynical attempt to play on people’s patriotic sensibilities by giving a piece of financial services legislation a name that sounds like it ought to be Armed Services or Veterans’ Affairs legislation. This is an insult to our servicemembers’ service and sacrifices.
Indeed, Congress should focus on ending discrimination and on helping African-American veterans in tangible ways that will improve people’s lives. A multitude of national veteran service organizations including the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, and AMVETS have written to Congress to express concerns about the damage this bill will do. America’s black veterans deserve better than to be used as pawns in a political battle. Like General McGhee and his famed Tuskegee airmen, they fought for our security and deserve better from us, not empty promises from Washington, D.C.