Why Congress Isn’t Calling for Veterans Affairs Chief’s Head

Secretary Shinseki’s long history of military service has many reluctant to push him out of office.

U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki (left) and Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel testify before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee about wait times veterans face to get medical care on May 15.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
May 21, 2014, 1:16 a.m.

The scan­dal at the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment con­tin­ues to grow, with at least 26 fa­cil­it­ies un­der in­vest­ig­a­tion for al­legedly cook­ing their books so that vet­er­ans were forced to wait weeks or months to re­ceive med­ic­al treat­ment. Dozens re­portedly died be­fore they were able to see a doc­tor.

While mem­bers of Con­gress in both parties and cham­bers are clam­or­ing for an im­me­di­ate res­ol­u­tion to the is­sue, there’s a per­vas­ive re­luct­ance on Cap­it­ol Hill to call for Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Sec­ret­ary Eric Shineski’s resig­na­tion. Lead­ers in both parties have avoided mak­ing com­ments, though Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell al­lowed that a change in lead­er­ship “might be a good thing.” And the vast ma­jor­ity of mem­bers, in­clud­ing far-right con­ser­vat­ives and Blue Dog Demo­crats, say it’s too early to know just how deeply in­volved Shineski was in these is­sues and wheth­er Con­gress ought to hold him re­spons­ible.

The Vet­er­ans Af­fairs scan­dal wasn’t men­tioned dur­ing Shin­seki’s most re­cent ap­pear­ance on the Hill, a meet­ing with the House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee on Tues­day. Nor was it dis­cussed at House Re­pub­lic­ans’ weekly con­fer­ence meet­ing.

Even con­ser­vat­ive Rep. Steve King of Iowa, not usu­ally known for with­hold­ing his opin­ion on a ma­jor is­sue, said it was “pre­ma­ture” to call for Shineski to step down.

A four-star gen­er­al, Shin­seki served in the Army for nearly 40 years, in­clud­ing two com­bat tours in Vi­et­nam, in which he lost part of his foot to a land mine.

“I’m re­luct­ant to make that call un­less I have come to an in­formed con­vic­tion,” King said Tues­day. “But what has happened here is a sys­tem­ic tragedy that seems to be grow­ing like a vir­us across this coun­try and I don’t think we’ve caught up with this whole [scan­dal] yet. If the pres­id­ent has someone whom he thinks could do — fix this VA sys­tem faster and more ef­fect­ively, I hope that per­son emerges. At that point it’d be time to make a de­cision. I don’t know what the al­tern­at­ive is right now.”

The reas­on many mem­bers are hold­ing back, however, goes much deep­er. Un­like At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er or former Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Kath­leen Se­beli­us, who re­cently found them­selves on the wrong side of Re­pub­lic­an ire, Shin­seki is a dec­or­ated vet­er­an. A four-star gen­er­al, Shin­seki served in the Army for nearly 40 years, in­clud­ing two com­bat tours in Vi­et­nam, in which he lost part of his foot to a land mine.

The ad­mir­a­tion for Shin­seki’s ser­vice has many mem­bers let­ting their pitch­forks lie, at least for now.

“As some­body who has worn the uni­form in the fash­ion that Gen­er­al Shin­seki has … I’m re­luct­ant to be crit­ic­al of him un­til I see the breadth of the facts,” King said. “But something’s gotta change.”

Still, a hand­ful of Re­pub­lic­ans, sev­er­al of whom are vet­er­ans them­selves, and a num­ber of vet­er­ans groups have called for Shin­seki’s head, ar­guing that the prob­lems at the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment are neither new nor go­ing away.

Rep. Mike Coff­man, R-Colo., who serves on both the House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs and Armed Ser­vices com­mit­tees, has made sev­er­al pub­lic pleas for Shin­seki’s re­mov­al. Coff­man, a Gulf War vet­er­an, said Tues­day that he wor­ries his col­leagues are too fo­cused on the cur­rent scan­dal to see the un­der­ly­ing prob­lems with vet­er­ans af­fairs, all of which have con­tin­ued un­der Shin­seki’s ten­ure. A re­cently launched in­spect­or gen­er­al’s in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to al­leg­a­tions of mis­man­age­ment will not get at “the to­tal­ity of what’s oc­curred,” Coff­man said Tues­day.

Coff­man ar­gues that Shin­seki has proven him­self “time and again” to be a poor lead­er. “I ab­so­lutely think that he is un­able to lead this agency,” he said. “So when he says that he’s angry or ‘mad as hell,’ I think he’s mad as hell [that] he got caught. I think he’s mad as hell it be­came an ac­tu­al story that em­bar­rasses the agency and this ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

Rep. Adam Kin­zinger, R-Ill., an Ir­aq War vet­er­an, also called for Shin­seki to step down on NBC’sMeet the Press this past week­end.

“I think it’s time for Shin­seki to resign be­cause we need to get some­body there,” Kin­zinger said. “He’s a great guy, a great Amer­ic­an, but [we need] some­body there who knows how to fix the prob­lem.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Cal­if., who served in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan, has been call­ing for Shin­seki’s resig­na­tion for more than a year, and penned an op-ed about it last April. Hunter also serves on the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee.

But Rep. Tammy Duck­worth, D-Ill., an­oth­er Ir­aq vet­er­an, has strongly de­fen­ded Shin­seki, with whom she worked at the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment for two years. Al­though she sup­ports an in­vest­ig­a­tion of the de­part­ment, Duck­worth offered an al­tern­at­ive ex­plan­a­tion for some of the is­sues there.

“I think he’s tried to bring VA in­to a new era and es­pe­cially with the 9/11 vet­er­ans and the re­turn of the Vi­et­nam vet­er­ans,” she said Tues­day. “There’s no one who cares more for vet­er­ans than he does and I’ve seen that on a very per­son­al level, how deeply he cares about the vet­er­ans. And, now we just need to know how much the bur­eau­cracy is res­ist­ing the changes that he tried to put in place and what can we do to make sure that we turn this battle­ship around.”

“We just need to know how much the bur­eau­cracy is res­ist­ing the changes that he tried to put in place and what can we do to make sure that we turn this battle­ship around.”

Re­gard­less of Shin­seki’s role, the prob­lems at the VA, all sides agree, are sys­tem­ic. The House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee has been work­ing for months to get to the bot­tom of the nu­mer­ous is­sues plaguing the de­part­ment, but, mem­bers say, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has been slow to turn over doc­u­ments.

Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said Tues­day that the de­part­ment has had 30 staff mem­bers work­ing to ful­fill the com­mit­tee’s sub­poena look­ing for more in­form­a­tion on the long wait­ing lines at VA hos­pit­als for eight days. He has so far re­ceived just 200 emails from just one staffer.

“If it takes them that long to get me 200 emails, it’ll be next year be­fore they’re fin­ished,” Miller said. “Again, it shows in­ef­fi­ciency. It shows one of two things — either, one, they’re ex­tremely in­ef­fi­cient, or two, they’re con­tinu­ing to hide something.”

Miller ad­ded that the de­part­ment is “stone­walling” mem­bers of Con­gress. And for now, that’s as much as many of them are will­ing to say.

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