SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
We're going to open up our "reporter hotline," now, where NPR correspondents answer your questions about the issues and candidates this election year. This week, our focus is veterans affairs and defense spending. NPR's Larry Abramson and Quil Lawrence have been covering those issues for NPR, and they join us now. Gentlemen, thanks very much for being with us.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.
SIMON: Larry, here in the studio, first, a question is for you. This is from Sue Hoben in Canton, Connecticut.
SUE HOBEN: My question is, why don't we increase taxes when we wage a war? For instance, Iraq and Afghanistan. Surely, if national interest is at stake, then we should be willing to pay the price rather than add to the deficit.
ABRAMSON: Well, really good question. A lot of people have asked that and advocated for extra taxes, as we have done in conflicts going all the way back to the War of 1812. Also, in the Civil War and the war in Vietnam, there were tax increases to pay for those conflicts. But we haven't been doing that in the last few conflicts, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. As you recall, Scott, in Afghanistan, President Bush actually lowered taxes. And President Obama continued that tradition as - lower taxes, he said, in order to give people more money to fight the recession. I think the general response has been that it would be a bad idea to raise taxes because of the economic difficulties that we've been experiencing, all the way back to when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. But a lot of people still support this idea. However, Congress has decided not to do that.
SIMON: Another question for you, Larry. And this, from a listener named Eric Fajardo. He wants to know how Governor Romney would plan to balance the budget if he increases military spending.
ABRAMSON: Governor Romney actually has not given us specifics on how he would raise money to finance the military spending he envisions. There's some disagreement about exactly how much that extra military spending would cost - anywhere from 1 trillion to $2 trillion beyond what the Obama administration would ask for defense. But Governor Romney says his plans would usher in a stronger economy, that would help pay for the military spending; and that military spending is the most important obligation for government. So we should be funding the military first and if necessary, cut other spending instead.
SIMON: Quil, let's turn to you, now, if we can. We have a question from a military wife.
KATHLEEN LIVSEY: Hello, my name is Kathleen Livsey. I am from Stillwater, Oklahoma. And as the wife of a disabled soldier, I'm concerned about cuts made to the defense budget. My husband is medically retired, at 27. And he is supposed to receive full benefits sometime in the next 100 days. And my question is, what will defense cuts mean in terms of disabled soldiers?
LAWRENCE: Well, in terms of the defense cuts, if you're talking about the sequestration threat, then the Obama administration have said that they are exempting the VA from those cuts. So if you're his caregiver, those benefits you're getting, shouldn't change. President Obama has increased the VA's budget about 40 percent, in the past three years, to about $140.3 billion. That's the request before Congress right now.
In terms of fixing the VA's problems more generally, both candidates favor a computerized data system. It's hard to believe, maybe, but the VA and the Pentagon are only now getting around to using a common electronic record for each soldier. And it's going to take, probably, until 2017 to fully implement that system. And in the meantime, vets are still complaining that it takes months - or sometimes, years - to get their needs addressed, if they appeal a VA decision. They've also added to their own workload, at the VA, because they took on nearly a million extra cases when they presumed that Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome and PTSD are all service-related.
SIMON: Finally, Quil, we have a question here, from a 29-year-old veteran named John-Ryan Dobbs. He says he's been out of the military for three years, now, but has had a hard time finding work. And he writes, quote, "Most of the time, I feel that my military experience is a negative thing, and sways employers away from hiring me. I'm just curious what either one" - meaning either presidential candidate - "will do to help veterans actually get jobs."
LAWRENCE: Well, both candidates have pushed the idea of getting military credentials translated into civilian credentials. So if you drove a truck in Iraq or Afghanistan, you should be able to convert that easily into a commercial truck driver's license back here. Likewise, if you were a mechanic or worked on high-tech communications, or you were a medic, all those should be - easily translate into corresponding licenses back home.
There are some studies - and I've heard lots of anecdotes - that suggest some employers feel there's some sort of stigma for Iraq and Afghanistan vets; that they're afraid that those soldiers might have PTSD, and so they're reluctant to hire them. And in fact, the numbers that came out September say that for post-9/11 soldiers - Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers - their unemployment rate is about 2 percentage points worse than non-veterans.
The Romney campaign says that they'll keep more veterans employed by maintaining a bigger military; basically, keeping them in the service. And the Obama administration has pushed jobs bills while in office, and they have been blaming Republicans in Congress for not passing the last veterans' jobs bill, which was killed by a procedural move. Of course, both parties are blaming the other party, for playing politics with that bill.
SIMON: NPR's Quil Lawrence and Larry Abramson, joining our "reporter hotline." Thank you both very much.
LAWRENCE: You're welcome.
ABRAMSON: My pleasure.
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