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Opinion: Columnists

Jeff Miller could be MVP in Congress

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Mark Tapscott,Columnists,Campaign 2012

Nothing in life is assured, but Rep. Jeff Miller's Wednesday eruption against Veterans Affairs officials' evasion of simple questions about waste and incompetence in their department could mean a prominent place for him in the history books.

Here's why: For decades, Congresses under majorities of both parties have repeatedly passed grandly worded laws creating new federal departments, agencies and programs, then left the hard work of shaping them to unelected, unaccountable executive branch bureaucrats.

The results have been bureaucratic monsters whose out-of-control spending and power-grabbing regulatory excesses are changing government from the people's servant into their master.

At the same time, with so much power and authority being ceded to executive branch bureaucrats, congressional oversight has become little more than a formality. Congress has just about reduced itself to figurehead status, and its public approval ratings are at historic lows.

Tapscott: 'If Jeff Miller (pictured) is serious about digging into every corner of VA, he could show the way to restoring congressional oversight to the place of importance intended for it by the Founders.'

That's the opposite of what the Founders intended by making Congress the First Branch and the closest of the three to the people. Congress, especially the House of Representatives, is supposed to use its power of the purse and oversight authority thereby conferred to be the meanest junkyard dog around in fighting bureaucratic excess.

Oversight is hard and tedious, but it is the most vital work of every senator and representative. It requires time and smart, experienced, bare-knuckles players on congressional staff. Too many members can't be bothered.

Miller's eruption was sparked by continued VA evasions about how much it spends on employee conferences like the two Orlando, Fla., events last year that featured an amateurish but tax-paid video parody of Gen. George S. Patton.

The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, which the Florida Republican chairs, has now received three wildly divergent estimates from VA of its total spending on such events, ranging from $20 million to $100 million in 2011.

The third VA figure of $86 million was presented at Wednesday's hearing. Miller's exasperation was clearly evident when VA's No. 2 official, W. Scott Gould, couldn't explain the variation among the estimates.

Instead of merely venting his anger, Miller responded to the VA obstacles by declaring, "The truce is over. Expect much more oversight from this committee."

Miller was still fuming after the hearing, telling The Washington Examiner's Mark Flatten that the committee "got the same old crap that VA has been giving us for two years, and I am tired of it."

Perhaps to remove any doubt about his intention, Miller added that the committee "will be digging in every possible corner that we can for issues that are not being served for the veterans. If you have leadership within the VA that have arrogant attitudes, the veterans are not being well-served."

Legions of veterans, many of whom left parts of themselves on battlefields around the world, are hoping Miller will do exactly that. Because when they came home, they found themselves fighting VA for benefits they surely earned. The department has a backlog of an estimated 600,000 claims that are at least 125 days old.

Gould's boss is VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, the retired four-star Army general who as a young officer bled in Vietnam. It's not unreasonable to think he could get the VA in shape, but it hasn't happened.

The VA is the second-largest federal department and may be the worst managed, despite the multiplicity of candidates for that dubious distinction in the nation's capitol. That is an outrage, because VA is supposed to serve the men and women who have done the most for America.

If Miller is serious about digging into every corner of VA, he could show the way to restoring congressional oversight to the place of importance intended for it by the Founders.

Most importantly, it will make him a hero to America's veterans.

Mark Tapscott is executive editor of The Washington Examiner.

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Mark Tapscott

Executive Editor
The Washington Examiner