May 31, 2014

Only One Head Will Roll

The hundred or so folks in Congress who have been calling ever more loudly of late for the head of General Eric Shinseki should be feeling quite proud of themselves. Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, offered his resignation, and President Obama  accepted it, "with considerable regret," to no one's surprise.

Of course, I'm not convinced how much regret there really was, as Obama stuck with the script that most in his position follow when they desperately want to be rid of the albatross-of-the-day, but rarely come right out and officially ask for the resignation.

Shinseki had offered up some information (in a column that ran in USA Today on Thursday) on what he was doing to both investigate and respond to allegations of delayed appointments and falsified records at several facilities, including the one in Phoenix where leaders were placed on leave based on the accusations there, but it was virtually -- no, Bidenesque literally --  impossible for him to offer enough, to do enough, to keep his job. He knew it, the President knew it, and so did pretty much everyone else.

There were a few holdouts though, notably House Speaker Crying John Boehner.  He noted on Thursday that
The question I ask myself is him resigning going to get us to the bottom of the problem? Is it going to help us find out what's really going on, and the answer I keep getting is no.
Interestingly, this patient wait-time problem, as the MSNBC article cited above notes, has been going on for years. In fact,
Since 2005, the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) has issued 18 reports that identified, at both the national and local levels, deficiencies in scheduling resulting in lengthy wait times and the negative impact on patient care.
And this leads me to wonder, will other heads roll?  Aren't there others who should have been aware of this, and did little or nothing to solve the problem?

What about the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs? Chairman Bernie Sanders, the staunchly Independent Vermonter, apparently has not been holding hearings (on anything?) even though minority members allegedly have been calling for them.  The time is now, the minority has said, for oversight to begin. Well, actually, the time has long since passed for Senate oversight hasn't it?

And what about the matching House committee? What about the fine Republican Jeff Miller of Florida?   Here are some excerpts from his statement on the Secretary's resignation:
Appropriately, Shinseki is taking the brunt of the blame for these problems, but he is not the only one within VA who bears responsibility. Nearly every member of Shinseki's inner circle failed him in a major way...shielded him from crucial facts...convincing him that some of the department's most serious, well documented and systemic issues were merely isolated incidents...
Apparently these "well documented and systemic issues" which the VA OIG has been complaining about for years, were not important enough for Miller's committee to jump on, like they jumped on VA travel expenses, for example. Spending taxpayer dollars on conferences is one thing, but years worth of information on poor treatment of veterans, well that's something else entirely.

Where was Miller's oversight?  He certainly doesn't have a problem voicing his disdain for the VA bureaucracy, but what about his own lack of knowledge and action? Should his head be on the chopping block along with Shinseki? Of course not.

In what amounted to an act of self-administered hands-only CPR (Ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin' alive stayin' alive), he notes that (emphasis added)
...whomever the next secretary may be, they will receive no grace period from America's veterans, American taxpayers, and Congress.
Thump on, Chairman Miller, thump on.

Seriously, you and I know that we have a better chance of seeing Elvis Presley perform this summer at the Weedsport Hotel than we do of anyone in Congress stepping up, and stepping down because they failed to perform their oversight responsibilities, potentially leading to the death of American veterans, which is how the patient wait-time issue has been described.

They'll holler and yell for someone else's head, especially in an election year - but they'll fail to see their own reflections in the mirror. Crying John is proof of that.

He reiterated that the VA's problems are bigger than one man -- or, at least, bigger than one retired Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and clearly they're too big for Congressional accountability. Nope -- only one man is man enough to fix this problem.

Per Boehner's statement on the resignation (again, emphasis added),
General Shinseki has dedicated his life to our country, and we thank him for his service. His resignation, though, does not absolve the president of his responsibility to make things right for our veterans.  Business as usual cannot continue...One personnel change cannot be used as an excuse to paper over a systemic problem. Our veterans deserve better, we'll hold the President accountable until he makes things right.
Shinseki fell on his sword.  As usual, Congress pointed theirs at someone else.