Military veterans comprise one of the most powerful segments of American society.
Politicians left, right, and center revere vets’ service to country – all the more so since fewer and fewer elected officials (or their children) have actually served in uniform themselves. This is equally true for Democrats and Republicans, which makes veterans’ services always political, often partisan.
Under pressure from lawmakers of both parties and, apparently, the White House, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki resigned Friday. It was clear to him and to President Obama that the retired US Army general had become a “distraction” in the effort to sort out and fix a massive, growing scandal involving medical services provided to vets.
Will Shinseki’s departure quiet the political furor? Not likely.
Democrats will be doing damage control to the image of their party presented by opponents as less than whole-heartedly supportive of the US military, in particular veterans.
Essentially, Mr. Obama has been mopping up after more than a decade of costly war begun – under weak or false premises, critics say – by his Republican predecessor.
Still, it became his responsibility to care for the needs of returning vets – many thousands of them in tough shape with post-traumatic stress symptoms as well as other physical, mental, and emotional injuries – in addition to a large, aging population of vets from earlier wars, especially Vietnam.
The VA’s inspector general this week reported that “significant delays in access to care negatively impacted the quality of care” at a VA hospital in Phoenix, where some 1,700 veterans in need of care were found to be "at risk of being lost or forgotten.”
What’s more, the VA’s watchdog team found that "inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic throughout" the VA's 1,700 health facilities nationwide, including 150 hospitals and 820 clinics. Operations at 42 VA facilities around the country are under scrutiny by the inspector general.
It was a devastating indictment of the VA and those in positions of leadership, some of whom are likely to be fired if not prosecuted for keeping false records in an attempt to show that waiting times were shorter than they actually were.
Shinseki’s departure changes neither the scope and scale of the problem nor its political nature.
"Until the president outlines a vision and an effective plan for addressing the broad dysfunction at the VA, [Friday’s] announcement really changes nothing,” House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, told reporters. “One personnel change cannot be used as an excuse to paper over a systemic problem.”
As congressional investigations and corrective steps continue, the VA scandal is likely to be used as a political weapon in this fall’s midterm elections. In some cases, it already has.
Crossroads GPS, which supports Republican candidates, has been hammering Democratic Senators up for reelection – for not acting (or acting quickly enough) to call for Shinseki’s resignation and for not signing on to VA reform legislation pushed by the GOP.
That proposed legislation – "The Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014” – would give the VA secretary the authority to demote or fire members of the Senior Executive Service in cases of alleged wrong-doing, skirting typical civil service procedures making it difficult to do so. It has passed the Republican-controlled House but not the Democrat-majority Senate.
“This is not about politics; it’s about doing what’s right to clean up President Obama’s latest and most egregious management fiasco,” Crossroads GPS president and CEO Steven Law said in a statement Friday.
As for Shinseki himself, he is likely to stay out of public view. It would be in keeping with his character, say friends and colleagues – a generally quiet man who graduated from West Point, was twice wounded in Vietnam, and rose to become Army chief of staff, angering Bush administration officials when he predicted – accurately, as it turned out – that it could take several hundred thousand US troops to successfully invade and occupy Iraq.
“Secretary Shinseki is an American patriot, an honorable man whose personal integrity and commitment to duty and to others is above reproach,” William Thien, national commander of the 1.9 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in a statement. “We support his decision to resign, because the outside calls for his resignation were overshadowing the crisis in healthcare issues veterans face, and that is what’s most important.”