Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald lost his cool in a House hearing Wednesday after Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) asked him questions about huge cost overruns at a Denver VA hospital, which prompted McDonald to blame Congress for those problems and then imply that Coffman isn't qualified to debate the issue.
At the end of a few minutes of sniping, McDonald ended by barking at Coffman, "I've run a large company, sir. What have you done?"
As it turns out, Coffman is a combat veteran who started his own company, and is the only member of Congress to have served in both Iraq wars.
The comments from McDonald, who once ran Procter & Gamble, were later described by Coffman's office as "obnoxious."
"Mike Coffman has been fighting for years to fix the failures of the Department of Veterans Affairs, but he can't legislate leadership," said his spokesman, Tyler Sandberg. "Notwithstanding Secretary McDonald's obnoxious comments, Rep. Coffman is concerned that the secretary will never fix the problems at the VA so long as he refuses to fully acknowledge that his organization continues to be dysfunctional at every level."
"The secretary may think that making personal attacks against Rep. Coffman makes for good sound bites on TV but it's a diversion from what should be his core task: changing the culture within the VA," Sandberg added.
The fracas started when Coffman criticized the VA for citing its effort to defend cost and time overruns at a Denver hospital projects as a major accomplishment.
"How is that a success?" Coffman asked. "You lost that case on every single point for the hospital in my district that is hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule."
"I think that that's just characteristic of your glossing over the extraordinary problems confronted by your department," Coffman added. "This is a department mired in bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. And I gotta tell you, I think the public relations is great today, but there's no substance."
McDonald said he was offended by those remarks, and then dodged the question and tried to shift the blame to Coffman and others in Congress.
"Actually, I've been here six months," McDonald said to Coffman. "You've been here longer than I have. If there's a problem in Denver, I think you own it more than I do."
Coffman didn't rise to the bait, and instead suggested that the VA should get out of the construction business entirely given its management failures around the country. McDonald replied that the VA doesn't want to manage every VA construction contract, and then gave Coffman another jab.
"If you want I'll give you my cellphone tonight, and you can answer some of the calls and see if I'm making a different for veterans," he said. "Or go on the websites and see what the veterans are saying on the websites."
That's when he dropped the line, "I've run a large company, sir. What have you done?"
The VA has seen more than its share of management failures over the last several months, which has slowly forced some officials to resign. While McDonald was given the power to fire corrupt or negligent officials, he has yet to use that authority to fire anyone for reasons related to last year's veterans' health care scandal.