Legislation tightening Arlington burial requirements approved by House, moves on to Senate

Nearly unanimously, the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation eliminating waivers and tightening burial requirements at Arlington National Cemetery in a floor vote at the Capitol March 23, 1999.

The bill, House Resolution 70, was approved by a voice vote of 428-2. It was drafted to ensure that only veterans who meet stringent service criteria are buried at Arlington. It also eliminates automatic eligibility for members of Congress, cabinet members and ambassadors who don't otherwise meet military requirements.

The legislation is the outgrowth of controversy surrounding the interment of a former ambassador who was buried at Arlington last year. Under Army provisions, the secretary of the Army granted a waiver permitting burial of the ambassador, who did not meet the usual criteria for interment. It was later learned that the ambassador had lied about his military record.

H.R. 70 now moves to the U.S. Senate, which has yet to set a date to consider the legislation.

“We look forward to working with the Senate to see this measure signed into law,” said U.S. Representative Bob Stump (R-AZ), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and sponsor of the bill. “By doing so, we would assure America's military heroes we still honor their service and sacrifices.

“Arlington National Cemetery belongs to our veterans and we should keep it that way.” said Committee member Cliff Stearns (R-FL).

U.S. Representative Vic Snyder (D-Ark) was one of two House members to vote against H.R. 70, although he voted, with reservations, for nearly identical legislation last year. That bill, H.R. 3211, ultimately died when the Senate failed to act on it.

Snyder said he changed his position, in part, as a result of the murder of two U.S. Capitol Police officers in the Capitol last year. Under the proposed legislation, he said, one of the officers who was buried at Arlington wouldn't have met the eligibility criteria laid out in the current bill.

He cited the memorial to the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger as another example of something that would be prohibited under the current legislation, which stipulates that memorials can only be erected to commemorate “a particular military event,” and only after 25 years have passed since the event took place.

“There are occasions that will come along that we will regret not having included …” Snyder said, “… events involving human tragedy in which things could not be foreseen.”

“I was in the military and it was a very special part of my life,” he said. But space exploration “is a dangerous line of work. I think most Americans would see it as comparable to military heroism.”

“[{H.R. 3211] languished over in the Senate after the Capitol shootings,” Snyder explained. “My guess is [that the current bill] will die over there as well.”

Along with other interested parties, ANC Superintendent John C. Metzler had been scheduled to appear at a legislative hearing before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Benefits March 10. The hearing was canceled due to inclement weather and not rescheduled prior to the vote.

Written testimony Metzler submitted to the subcommittee prior to the hearing took exception to two provisions in H.R. 70 and noted that revised Army regulations had already corrected perceived weaknesses in the old system.

“Under the revised Army regulations governing burial at Arlington, certain veterans who have served their country in … specific high government offices would continue to be allowed to be buried in Arlington based on their distinguished service to the nation.

Changing this rule would constitute a significant departure from current burial policies and would fundamentally change the character of the cemetery. Under the pending legislation, our military heroes will no longer lie next to our nation's most revered statesmen and Supreme Court justices, an attribute of the cemetery which distinguishes it as the nation's most revered burial ground.

“Second, the pending legislation precludes any discretion to grant exceptions under any circumstances. We believe that there should always be the opportunity for individuals who have made extraordinary public contributions to be considered for burial at Arlington, and for an exception to be granted, if appropriate.

“Arlington should be preserved as a national shrine honoring the men and women who have served in the armed forces and a limited number of exceptional Americans who have made or will make extraordinary public contributions, the vast majority of which are veterans or our Armed Forces.

“If there is one thing we know, it is that life is uncertain. We believe that there must be a mechanism to deal with facts and events that are impossible to predict with certainty today. We believe the president, through his designee, the secretary of the Army, should have the discretion to grant exceptions to allow for burial in Arlington of individuals whose acts, services, or contributions on behalf of the armed forces or the nation are extraordinary and substantially similar to the acts, services, or contributions made by the individuals who are entitled to burial.”

Metzler voiced approval of the subcommittee's proposal to limit placement of memorials in Arlington.

“We suppot efforts to limit these memorials and monuments,” and “approve of restricting the placement of memorials or monuments that commemorate military events until 25 years after the event. This time period ensures that the event being commemorated is of fitting historical significance.

Metzler's written testimony concluded by stating that, “The Army takes very seriously its responsibility to administer and to uphold the sanctity of Arlington National Cemetery …,” and that it was developing a master plan which would require a review of eligibility standards every five years.

After the legislation passed the House, Metzler said: “I will implement any bill that passes and I will work with the House and Senate to put it into effect.”

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