Before we fault President Obama for the latest service failures at the Department of Veterans Affairs – and he indeed deserves blame, because the buck stops with him – let’s at least state the obvious: VA screwups are a bipartisan tradition that require a bipartisan solution.
A lot of Republicans, who rightly suspect that their Benghazi and IRS probes won’t sufficiently slime Obama, now seem to think that VA-gate will do the trick. For instance, Senator Marco Rubio, who recently proclaimed himself ready to be president, says the VA mess (two dozen hospitals allegedly disguised the amount of time vets had to wait for service) is proof that the Obama administration is “incompetent.” Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican whip, says that, in light of the VA mess, “we should doubt (Obama’s) ability to properly manage the leviathan government that he helped create.”
Yeah, whatever. McCarthy apparently doesn’t know (or chooses not to remember) that “the leviathan government” long predates Obama – the government grew under Ronald Reagan, and did so again under George W. Bush – and the VA in particular has long been bureaucratically leviathan.
Even Ralph Peters, a former lieutenant colonel and currently a Fox News military analyst, has rebuked the Republicans for their convenient amnesia. Peters said on the air last week: “Where was the outrage during the Bush years? I’m not a defender of President Obama by any means, but this is a longstanding problem.”
Exactly. Hard as it may be for some people to believe, the VA’s screwups didn’t begin in 2009 when Obama took the oath. I well remember 2005, when VA secretary Jim Nicholson (an ex-GOP chairman with no government management experience, and no previous experience advocating for vets) had to admit that Iraq and Afghanistan vets were waiting interminably for medical services. Turned out, the VA had severely undercounted – by 80,000 – the number of vets expected for treatment that year. Put simply, the VA had somehow failed to anticipate that Bush’s needless war in Iraq would spark an enrollment surge.
Things only got worse. By mid-2007, the VA’s disability claims backlog exceeded 400,000. Meanwhile, Nicholson had already approved bonuses for top VA officials, totaling $3.8 million. And in spring ’07, when he was confronted with reports of widespread vet treatment shortfalls, he said the evidence was merely “anecdotal,” and he voiced this memorable gem: “When you are treating so many people, there is always going to be a linen towel left somewhere.”
Funny, I don’t remember congressional Republicans calling for Nicholson’s head, or blaming Bush for mismanaging the leviathan. But we know what they’d be saying about Eric Shinseki today, if the embattled VA secretary had dared to quip dismissively about linen towels.
But to chart their hypocrisy, there’s no need to revisit the Bush era. On the one hand, they assail Obama for the wait-list scandal; on the other hand, they’ve consistently opposed Democratic efforts to pump more money into the VA. Three months ago, Senate Democrats sought to hike VA funding by $21 billion over the next 10 years, with the goal of building 27 new VA health facilities – but naturally the hike died, courtesy of a Republican filibuster. And the national commander of the American Legion was quite displeased: “I don’t know how anyone who voted ‘no’ today can look a veteran in the eye and justify that vote.”
Nevertheless, as I signaled at the outset, Obama should be held accountable as well. When he ran for president in 2008, he raised the bar on the VA issue. In one particular speech, he denounced the mismanagement of vet care and asked, “How can we let this happen? How is that acceptable in the United States of America? The answer is, it is not. It’s an outrage. And it’s a betrayal of the ideals that we ask our troops to risk their lives for.”
Or how about this quote: “I know veterans have difficulty getting access to VA care and I don’t want the men and women risking their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan to return home to be greeted by a system that tells them ‘thanks for fighting for your country, now take a number.'” So said Obama as a newbie senator, at a hearing back in July 2005.
Six years into his presidency, the betrayals continue. He has reportedly been slow to ride herd on the VA, and he hasn’t fulfilled an ’09 promise to meld the electronic records of the VA and the Pentagon. (Soldiers leaving active duty can’t easily transfer their Pentagon medical records to the VA, because of the usual turf warfare.) The federal bureaucracy has long been a leviathan, but until Obama cedes it to some lucky successor, it’s still his leviathan.
But since it’s demonstrably clear that both parties share the blame for the VA’s shortcomings, wouldn’t it be swell if they set aside their partisan point-scoring and worked in tandem to fix the agency – and honor those Americans who put their lives on the line?
Or would it be easier to believe in unicorns?Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1