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U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais "voted against pay raises for our veterans." -- Eric Stewart, DesJarlais’ Democratic opponent, in a campaign commercial on Oct. 11, 2012
Veterans’ issues are frequent fodder for political campaigns as Democrats and Republicans alike try to demonstrate their patriotism and win over a reliable voting bloc.
So it’s hardly surprising that veterans’ concerns have become an issue in Tennessee’s most contentious congressional race, between U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Jasper, and Democratic challenger Eric Stewart, a state senator from Belvidere. The two men are running in the 4th Congressional District, which takes in parts of Middle and East Tennessee.
Stewart has slammed DesJarlais repeatedly throughout the campaign and tried to portray him as someone who is not sympathetic to veterans or their concerns. We won’t attempt to examine all of the claims, but one in particular caught our attention.
DesJarlais "voted against pay raises for our veterans," Stewart charges in a campaign commercial as a sinister-looking photo of the congressman pops up on the screen next to another shot of what appears to be a soldier in uniform.
But, as so often is the case, things are not quite what they seem.
As we began to delve deeper, we found that both campaigns have so muddled the issue that it was impossible to put Stewart’s claim to the Truth-O-Meter. We did, however, feel that some context was necessary to help provide some clarity to voters.
To back up Stewart’s claim, his campaign pointed us to a May 26, 2011, debate in the U.S. House on a motion involving the 2012 defense authorization bill.
Democrats had called for a vote on a motion to boost combat pay for troops. Republicans objected. U.S. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, a California Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, argued Democrats were being transparently political because the underlying bill already included a pay hike of 1.6 percent in the monthly basic pay for members of the armed forces.
"We had all kinds of time to bring an amendment that would be helpful like this, then they bring this one," McKeon said. "There’s no offset. This would just put us again above the allocation from the chairman. This is really more Democrat increasing spending."
The motion failed 185-233,with DesJarlais among those voting no. The House then voted 322-96 to pass the overall defense bill, including the 1.6 percent hike in the monthly basic pay for the armed forces. DesJarlais was among those lawmakers voting yes.
Predictably, the vote on the combat pay increase has become the backdrop for campaign attack ads.
PolitiFact Wisconsin looked into one of those ads used against Republican Congressman Sean Duffy and rated it as False. The basis for that ruling was that while Duffy voted against boosting the combat pay, he did vote, as did DesJarlais, in favor of the overall bill that contained the 1.6 percent hike in monthly basic pay for the armed forces.
Stewart’s claim against DesJarlais is similar to the charge leveled in the campaign ad against Duffy. But there is one major difference. The anti-Duffy ad accused the congressman of voting against pay for active-duty soldiers. In his ad, Stewart accuses DesJarlais of voting against a pay raise for veterans.
Veterans, however, generally don’t receive combat pay. Wounded soldiers can continue to receive combat pay for up to 12 months after they are injured as long as they are hospitalized.
But is a soldier sidelined with a combat injury considered a veteran? We put that question to the House Armed Services Committee. Here’s the committee’s reply:
"Veteran can be defined broadly as anyone who has serviced in the military or narrowly as a service member that served directly in conflict, usually overseas."
The committee also pointed us to the eligibility rules for VA benefits. They read: "Eligibility for most VA benefits is based upon discharge from active military service under other than dishonorable conditions."
So, to recap, if Stewart had accused DesJarlais of voting against pay for active-duty soldiers, the issue would have been a little more cut and dry. But because he accused DesJarlais of voting against pay for veterans, the issue is muddled and harder to judge.
The DesJarlais camp has added to the confusion. The congressman’s aides contend that Stewart’s claim is false because DesJarlais voted in favor of the overall defense bill, including the 1.6 percent increase in basic pay for soldiers, on May 26, 2011.
But several months later, on Dec. 14, 2011, the bill returned to the House for a final vote after it had been merged with the Senate version. The final House-Senate bill also included the 1.6 percent increase in basic soldier pay. The House passed the final legislation 283-136.This time, however, DesJarlais voted against the bill, even though he had voted for the earlier House version.
DesJarlais’ spokesman, Robert Jameson, said in an email that the congressman voted against the final bill "because it failed to clarify language in two particular sections that could potentially allow U.S. citizens on U.S. soil to be indefinitely detained without trial."
Regardless of the rationale, the congressman did vote in favor of the bill containing the basic pay increase for soldiers but later voted against the final version. Thus, his claim that he voted for the soldier pay is true only if you look at his vote on an early version of the legislation and ignore his later vote against the final bill
Eric Stewart campaign commercial, A Common Sense Choice for Congress, Oct. 11, 2012
Katie Hill, campaign spokeswoman for Eric Stewart, in email to Politifact, Oct. 24, 2012
U.S. House Clerk’s Office, Roll Call Vote No. 374, On Motion to Recommit with Instructions, May 26, 2011
U.S. House Clerk’s Office, Roll Call Vote No. 375, On passage of 2012 defense authorization bill, May 26, 2011
PolitiFact Wisconsin, Democratic group says Duffy voted against pay increases for troops but in favor of protecting his own salary,Sept. 16, 2012
House Armed Services Committee in an email to PolitiFact, Oct. 25, 2012
House Armed Services Committee, National Defense Authorization Act/FY 2012: Conference Report and Highlights,Dec. 12, 2011
U.S. House Clerk’s Office, Roll Call Vote. No. 932,final passage for 2012 defense authorization bill, Dec. 14, 2011
Robert Jameson, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, in an email to PolitiFact on Oct. 24, 2012