It has been a good couple of weeks for military veterans and their families, who may at long last see real reform at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
As an advocate for veterans, I have been generous with my criticisms of the VA and demands for new leadership of the agency. Over the past several years the VA has devolved into a toxic cesspool of dysfunction and corruption devoted to protecting a cosseted class of bureaucrats rather than serving veterans.
But finally, with a strong VA reform bill signed by the president, we have a potential road map to fixing what’s wrong at the troubled department.
The president is fond of laying the blame for Washington’s dysfunction on the current Congress. But this time, the lawmakers delivered and they — not the president — deserve the credit.
For veterans, the events of the past few weeks have been remarkable and worth recounting. First, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and his Senate counterpart, Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., announced a hard-fought bipartisan deal on historic reforms. Then the Senate confirmed Robert McDonald, former chief executive of Procter & Gamble, as the next VA secretary.
The legislative push culminated in the overwhelming bicameral passage of a constructive (if flawed) compromise, the VA Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014.
But now that the signing ceremony is over and the presidential pens have been handed out, will the bill’s implementation be consistent with Congress’ intent? Based on what we’ve seen from Obama in the past, veterans groups should be wary of this administration’s commitment to fully implementing these reforms.
From his learning of VA scandals “from news reports,” to his disengaged, almost forced acceptance of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation, to his tepid response to evidence of reprisals against whistleblowers, Obama's lack of attention to this issue has been deeply revealing.
One thing is for certain: Now that it's the law, the success of VA reform will depend solely on how Obama and his administration choose to enforce it.
While the final bill is imperfect, it included a key accountability provision that Concerned Veterans for America proudly championed and other veterans groups urged Congress to adopt: empowering the VA secretary to quickly fire underperforming executives. Accountability means senior VA officials are responsible for getting results, and if they fall short they will face consequences.
Enhanced patient options for reimbursed private care represent another bright spot in the bill that effectively introduces private-sector competition to the VA for the first time.
Obama missed a tremendous opportunity when he failed to support the House version of the bill. He could have demonstrated bipartisan leadership, indignantly demanded firings, uncapped his executive order pen to force management changes and even picked up his phone and told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to schedule a vote on the legislation.
When conference negotiations reportedly broke down and the president was out fundraising, the fate of the final bill fell in to the hands of Miller and Sanders — a Southern Republican and a self-proclaimed socialist from Vermont. But the two chairmen found the courage to put aside their deep ideological differences and delivered a rare bipartisan victory for America’s veterans. For that, they both deserve thanks.
Their achievement was even more impressive given the last-ditch efforts of the VA bureaucracy to derail the negotiations by introducing a surprise request for $17.6 billion in “emergency” funding. This last-minute poison pill, designed to make the package unpalatable to fiscal conservatives, failed, thankfully.
The president will undoubtedly share in the afterglow of the signing ceremony, but make no mistake, this historic accomplishment happened in spite of his efforts — not because of them. That’s what happens when you “lead from behind.”
Veterans should see the VA’s shameless, 11th-hour ploy to derail the reform bill for what it is: a display of what we’ll be up against in the implementation phase. The VA bureaucracy’s behind-the-scenes efforts to water down the bill’s accountability and choice provisions will continue. You can bank on it. Veterans advocacy groups like CVA and the American Legion, as well as Congress, will need to keep a watchful eye on how these reforms are implemented.
As Miller so aptly stated: “The VA is not sacred — veterans are.” The president and McDonald must take that quote to heart and stand with our veterans in support of the new law.
There is no one left to blame, Mr. President. You and your hand-picked VA secretary now own the implementation of VA reform. America’s veterans will be watching closely as you choose which is sacred — veterans or the VA’s corrupt bureaucracy. Choose wisely.Pete Hegseth, an Army National Guard infantry officer, is CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and a Fox News contributor.