January 3, 2007 Should be "Veterans Day"
The day the 110th Congress is sworn in should be a day of rejoicing for America's veterans
by Larry Scott
For six years America's veterans have heard one story and lived another. The Jekyll & Hyde, Republican-controlled Congress loudly proclaimed their support of veterans while voting their cost-cutting political agenda. There was little, if any, Congressional oversight as the Republican political appointees who run the Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) knowingly requested inadequate healthcare budgets and implemented a program that prevented hundreds of thousands of qualified veterans from even enrolling for benefits.
Yes, January 3, 2007 should be Veterans Day, for just one year, anyway. The day the 110th Congress is sworn in will mark the demise of two of the most controversial Chairmen on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Steve Buyer (R-IN), will no longer be the Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Buyer handily won re-election in Indiana's ultra-conservative 4th District without the endorsement of any major veterans' group.
Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), will no longer Chair the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Craig was not up for re-election. His term ends in 2008.
These two Chairmen, while tasked with the care of America's veterans, have rightfully earned the contempt of their charges. While I doubt there will be dancing in the streets or free beer at American Legion and VFW halls, veterans will surely breathe a sigh of relief as new leadership comes to the Veterans' Committees.
Rep. Buyer has turned his two-year tenure chairing the House Vets' Committee into a living hell for veterans. Buyer tried to redefine who is a veteran. He claimed the intent of Congress was that only disabled and indigent veterans should be eligible for VA benefits. He pushed for a VA run by political appointees and not healthcare and business professionals. He locked-out veterans' service organizations from meaningful input into the VA budget process. His list of transgressions is long and hurtful to those who have served their country.
Sen. Craig runs a close second to Buyer. Craig has said the VA has too much money and has gone out of his way to obstruct additional funding for veterans' healthcare. He has deliberately confused the issue of unemployed and unemployable veterans and pushed the VA to find jobs for those veterans already deemed unable to work because of physical and/or emotional disabilities. Craig, along with Buyer, will NOT be missed.
The view ahead for veterans is much brighter. On tap to Chair the House Vets' Committee is Democratic Rep. Bob Filner of California. Filner endeared himself to all veterans when he took the VA to task for losing a laptop computer that contained the personal information of over 26 million former service members. Filner, in front of rolling cameras, pointed at VA officials and yelled, "You guys f***ed it up! Stop covering your ass and figure it out." Filner is known as a strong veterans' advocate in the House.
In the Senate, Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii should take the chair of the Vets' Committee. Akaka has long been known as a defender of veterans' rights and has an impeccable voting record on veterans' issues. (The appointments of Filner and Akaka are not etched in stone and there is a possibility of some political maneuvering that could put other Democratic Members in the seats.)
Together, Filner and Akaka will provide much-needed Congressional oversight of a VA crammed with Republican political appointees. The current Secretary of Veterans' Affairs is Jim Nicholson, former Chairman of the Republican National Committee. This is Nicholson's only qualification to run the agency charged with the care of the nation's 24-plus million veterans.
Nicholson's mistakes read like Chapter One of "Bad Management for Dummies." He allowed the loss of massive amounts of veterans' data by not implementing tight information technology controls. He colluded with the White House to accept inadequate VA budgets and was caught by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). He did not distribute over $100 million in funds earmarked for veterans' mental health needs and was again nabbed by the GAO. And, his most blatant transgression is his constant claim that the VA is "well-funded and well-staffed" while veterans wait months and years for necessary mental health and medical appointments. (Documentation of all Buyer, Craig and Nicholson facts available at VA Watchdog dot Org, on the web at: http://www.vawatchdog.org )
A recent editorial in the Houston Chronicle stated: "Treating and supporting our veterans is a non-negotiable cost of war." The Republican-controlled Congress did not get this message. Many veterans got mad and voted for change, along with the rest of the country. Although I have seen no statistical breakdown on how veterans voted, anecdotal evidence indicates many former service members crossed party lines to vote in a Democratic Congress.
The challenges facing a Democratically-controlled Congress are legion. The Veterans' Committees are no exception. They must work to ensure a properly-funded VA where veterans are not turned away or told to wait for necessary healthcare. The cost will be in the billions of dollars and these expenditures must be supported by the American people. They must provide oversight of a VA system paralyzed by incompetent political appointees. And, Congress must hope and pray that President Bush doesn't find his veto pen.