Commentary by Dan Caldwell, a Marine Corps veteran and currently serves as the Legislative and Political Director for Concerned Veterans for America. Dan served in Operation Iraqi Freedom with the 1st Marine Division. He also worked for two years as a congressional caseworker handling constituents’ issues with the VA.
This past week, during a routine House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) bluntly confronted Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald on the VA’s “bureaucratic incompetence and corruption.”
While that might sound harsh, Rep. Coffman has every right to be frustrated with the VA: His district is home to an unfinished billion dollar VA hospital and as a result the veterans he represents are forced to use a scandal-plagued VA hospital in Denver.
But instead of recognizing that Rep. Coffman had legitimate reasons to be angry with the toxic culture that still infects the VA, Secretary McDonald tried to shift the blame for problems at the VA to Rep. Coffman and then incredibly launched a personal attack by at one point saying to Rep. Coffman: “I’ve run a large company sir. What have you done?”
Lets take a look at that statement for a moment. So what exactly has Rep. Coffman done?
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Well, aside from serving as a congressman, state senator, Colorado State Treasurer, Colorado Secretary of State and running his own property management business, Rep. Coffman is a 22-year veteran of the Army and Marine Corps (both active and reserve components) who served in both the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War – making him exactly the type of person that the VA, and thereby Secretary McDonald, is supposed to serve.
(As a side note, Secretary McDonald shouldn’t be so quick to tout his experience running a large company, especially considering the circumstances under which he left Proctor and Gamble in 2013.)
In some ways, the back-and-forth between McDonald and Coffman was similar to a famous exchange between astronaut and decorated Marine combat veteran John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum, who were both campaigning for a Senate seat in Ohio. During one debate, Howard Metzenbaum asked John Glenn, “How can you run for Senate when you’ve never held a job?” J
ohn Glenn, in a response that would be immortalized as the Gold Star Mothers Speech, shot back: “You go with me to any Gold Star Mother, and you look her in the eye and tell her that her son did not hold a job.”
Even though McDonald did serve honorably in the Army himself, his flippant remarks towards Rep. Coffman make it appear, whether true or not, that he holds an attitude towards military service that is similar to Howard Metzenbaum’s.
McDonald’s remarks are revealing in other ways.
[sharequote align="center"]The toxic VA culture that McDonald was hired to fix: The VA system comes before the veteran.[/sharequote]
In addition to showing the VA Secretary to be thin-skinned and petty, McDonald’s remarks are also emblematic of an attitude that pervades the toxic VA culture that McDonald was hired to fix: The VA system comes before the veteran it is meant to serve, and the system cannot be questioned. And, despite his claims to the contrary, Secretary McDonald is working to preserve that system while only making minor changes on the margins to give the appearance he is reforming it.
For example, Secretary McDonald has undermined reforms that elected officials like Rep. Coffman successfully fought to have signed into law last summer in response to the VA wait list scandal. Those reforms were designed to give veterans more health care choices in the private sector through the Veteran Choice Card and to introduce more accountability for bad VA employees.
Instead, McDonald is aiming to the undermine the Veteran Choice Card by seeking to transfer funds appropriated by Congress to support the choice card back into the VA’s failing single-payer health care system. McDonald has also weakened new measures designed to make it easier to fire bad VA employees by adding an extra notification period to the VA’s firing process that has allowed many VA employees facing disciplinary action for extreme misconduct to resign or retire without being held accountable for their actions. This also leaves open the possibility that these employees could one day find employment again within the federal government.
Meanwhile, thousands of veterans are still waiting long periods of time for critical care, VA whistleblowers still face retaliation, and the VA will likely miss its goal ending the disability claims backlog in 2015.
So, considering his actions since becoming VA secretary, it is not surprising that he would lash out against someone like Rep. Coffman who has been a consistent advocate for VA reform–even before the problems at the VA became a national scandal.
It is also not a surprise that the White House has come to McDonald’s defense, especially considering that the Obama administration has been primarily focused on containing the VA wait list scandal instead of fixing the VA. They even engaged in the same petty personal attacks that McDonald engaged in when at the end of last week White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest went on local TV in Rep. Coffman’s district and called him an “aggressive antagonist.”
Many of us had hoped that Robert McDonald would begin to transform the VA and fix its toxic culture. The group I work for, Concerned Veterans for America, said at the time of his nomination that we were “cautiously optimistic” about Robert McDonald’s ability to reform and fix the VA. Considering his first six months as VA secretary, the caution was warranted but the optimism was not.
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