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House backs McCaskill bill on Arlington Cemetery

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 16, 2010 - WASHINGTON - A bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and others that aims to straighten out questionable contracting practices and the mismanagement of gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery is being sent to the White House for the president's signature.

On Thursday, the U.S. House voted 407-3 to approve the legislation, which the Senate had passed by unanimous consent on Dec. 4. The bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., came to a quick vote after McCaskill and the prime Republican cosponsor, Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, appealed to the House Democratic and Republicans leaders to allow a vote on the bipartisan initiative.

"I'm hopeful the president signs the bill quickly so we can ensure much needed oversight is in place at America's most sacred burial grounds," McCaskill said in a statement. "I made a promise to our veterans and the families of those buried at Arlington that I would stay on this problem even after the cameras stopped covering it."

The bipartisan legislation was introduced by McCaskill, Brown and three other senators after reports about mismarked Arlington graves sparked a hearing last summer by McCaskill's Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight that revealed the possibility of thousands of unmarked or improperly marked gravesites at the cemetery, which is located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

Last month, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. Army had launched a criminal investigation into the misplacement of remains after discovering the cremated remains of eight people in a single gravesite marked "Unknown."

After the U.S. Army inspector general reported numerous problems at the cemetery, the Army set up a new chain of command there. A senior official from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which manages many veterans' cemeteries nationwide, is also helping the Army reorganize the oversight and management systems.

The bill approved by Congress would codify the new organizational structure and make it clear that Arlington Cemetery's management is accountable to Congress. Its provisions include:

  • Directing the Army to report to Congress on the cemetery's ability to verify the identity, location and burial records for every gravesite, as well as to detail its plans to correct any errors that are discovered.
  • Requiring an Army report on progress made in reforming the cemetery's management and oversight structure, including its contract management and practices for providing information to families of service members buried at Arlington.
  • Instructing the Government Accountability Office to report to Congress on the management and oversight of Arlington. The GAO also would be asked to investigate the feasibility of transferring control of Arlington Cemetery and the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.