Will Congress be as brave as Shinseki?
WASHINGTON — If you want a prime example of what’s wrong with our politics, study the response to the veterans’ health care scandal. You would think from the coverage that the only issue that mattered to politicians was whether Gen. Eric Shinseki should be fired.
Shinseki is a true patriot, and his resignation as Veterans Affairs secretary on Friday calls Congress’ bluff. He played his part in a Washington sacrificial ritual. Will the politicians now be honorable enough to account for their own mistakes?
Thanks to Shinseki’s latest selfless act for his country, you can at least hope that we will move on to the underlying questions here, to wit: Why was the shortage of primary care doctors in the VA system not highlighted much earlier? Why did it take a scandal to make us face up to the vast increase in the number of veterans who need medical attention? And why don’t we think enough about how abstract budget numbers connect to the missions we’re asking government agencies to carry out?
It’s an election year, so it’s not surprising that the Republicans are using the vets scandal against President Obama and the Democrats, though there is a certain shamelessness about the ads they’ve been running, given the failures of the previous administration.
Shinseki and Obama might have averted this by pushing Congress much harder, much earlier to give the agency the tools it needed to do right by vets. And as a general matter, I wish Obama spent more time than he has on fixing government and improving administration. Progressives rightly assert that active, competent government can make things better — which means they need to place a high priority on making it work better. This would include, as The Washington Post editorialized, a serious engagement with civil service reform.
It’s also fair to ask why Shinseki did not move faster elsewhere, notably on what the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America called the department’s “egregious failure to process the claims of our veterans” in a timely and effective way. (For what it’s worth, I raised this concern in a column in November 2012.)
But this is where the story gets more complicated. Shinseki eventually made real progress on the claims issue and other inherited messes. He got little public credit, though many friends of veterans saw him as a reformer and refused to join the resignation chorus. Both House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi deserve praise for insisting to the end that Shinseki’s departure wouldn’t solve the system’s problems.
The most important of these is not that VA employees falsified data about the excessive waiting times for veterans seeking appointments with doctors, as outrageous as this was. It is, as The New York Times reported last week, “an acute shortage of doctors, particularly primary care ones, to handle a patient population swelled both by aging veterans from the Vietnam War and younger ones who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Dealing with this isn’t sexy, just essential.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee who wanted Shinseki to stay, is trying to push the discussion in the right direction. A Sanders bill to expand VA funding across a wide range of areas went down in a Republican filibuster last February. The new bill he hopes will come up for a vote this week focuses specifically on the health system.
It would authorize private care for veterans facing emergencies, which is similar a House Republican idea. But Sanders would also broaden access for veterans to other forms of government health care, fund 27 new VA facilities, and use scholarships or loan forgiveness to entice medical students to serve in the VA program.
Shinseki himself proposed other reforms in a speech he gave just before he quit, among them an end to incentives that have encouraged agency supervisors to produce fake information on waiting times.
If there is any cause that should be bipartisan, it’s care for our veterans. But too often, what passes for bipartisanship is the cheap and easy stuff. It tells you how political this process has been so far that so many of the Democrats who joined Republicans in asking for Shinseki to go are in tough election races this fall.
Now that Shinseki is gone, there are no excuses for avoiding the administrative challenges that Obama needs to confront and the policy errors for which Congress must also take responsibility.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Twitter: EJDionne.