By Stephen Barr Washington Post Staff Writer
Some of Washington's political elite would lose their claim to a final political perk under bipartisan, draft legislation to clarify and tighten eligibility standards for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
The vice president, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, Cabinet officers and ambassadors with honorable military backgrounds no longer would automatically qualify for an Arlington burial, according to the bill proposed by the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
The measure also would allow certain close family members of eligible veterans to be buried in the same graves as the veterans themselves, without the need for special permission from Army officials. Further, it would write into law existing regulations that allow the cremated remains of any veteran with an honorable discharge to be placed in a special complex on the cemetery's grounds.
“Being well connected will no longer be an acceptable criteria for burial consideration,” said House Veterans Affairs Chairman Bob Stump (R-Ariz.).
Rep. Lane Evans (Ill.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, called the measure an “even-handed and sensible proposal that will bring continued honor to our nation's most hallowed military cemetery.”
Stump and Evans noted that the draft bill would preclude them — both military veterans — from being buried at Arlington.
In keeping with past practice, members of the armed forces who die on active duty, were retired from the military, were prisoners of war, or held the nation's highest military decorations would remain eligible for an Arlington burial. The draft would continue to permit the burial of any former president.
The burial rules were swept up in controversy last year following allegations that President Clinton rewarded campaign contributors with plots at Arlington. At the center of the controversy was the late U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland, M. Larry Lawrence, a Democratic campaign contributor. His family had his body removed from Arlington after evidence showed Lawrence had fabricated his World War II Merchant Marine service. As currently written, the bill would deny burial to an envoy who died at his post, as Lawrence did.
A General Accounting Office review, however, found no evidence that political contributions played a role in Clinton administration burial decisions.
But the GAO review found some confusion about the guidelines for granting waivers to eligibility rules. In most of those cases, the cemetery's superintendent or the Army secretary approved burial waivers based on humanitarian considerations or because the person made an important contribution to the nation. A small number of the waivers involved persons who had no military service, administration officials said.
After hearings last month, former U.S. surgeon general C. Everett Koop, who had been granted an exemption in 1994 by Clinton, relinquished his claim for an Arlington burial.
In an apparent effort to address the question of whether an administration can, in effect, grant a reservation for a burial space, the bill would provide that the “secretary of the Army, or any other responsible official, may not consider a request for burial of remains of an individual in Arlington National Cemetery made before the death of the individual.”
Republican aides said they expect a healthy debate over how much leeway the bill should give the executive branch to accommodate special cases that fall outside the legislation's definitions. By stipulating the criteria for burial at Arlington, the bill appears to divest the president of his power to grant special permission for burials.
The measure also makes it far more difficult for memorials to be placed on the cemetery's grounds. Some veterans objected to the memorial honoring the victims of the terrorist bombing in 1988 of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Congress authorized the memorial and Clinton participated in groundbreaking ceremonies in December 1993.
According to the bill, “A memorial or marker may not be placed in Arlington National Cemetery unless the memorial or marker commemorates the service in the armed forces of the individual, or group of individuals, whose memory is to be honored by the memorial or marker.” Such memorials could not be erected until 25 years after the date of the event being honored.
Congressional aides said they expect to hold a hearing on the Stump-Evans bill next week and then put it on a fast track for House passage in March. Rep. Gerald D. Kleczka (D-Wis.) has introduced a competing bill that would end most waivers but still allow the remains of distinguished government officials who served on active duty to be interred at the cemetery.
Arlington burial rules were last tightened in 1967 because of worries about shrinking space at the cemetery. About 70,000 burial sites are left in the 612-acre cemetery; the Army projects they will be gone by 2025.
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard