For the Republican Party, the VA scandal is a “gift from God,” as Fox News contributor Ben Carson called it.
Obamacare has suddenly become more of a liability for Mitch McConnell than for his challenger, Benghazi is ... well, #Benghazi, and ... and ... and the GOP never really thought they'd need to run on anything more this year. Unlike #Benghazi, the IRS and most other GOP-hyped scandals, the VA scandal is real — and now that they've got a big scalp, with the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki, they're sure to be hungry for more, because that's just the way that they roll.
But, as usual, the real scandal is a good deal more complicated than the GOP would have you believe.
As Rachel Maddow observed on her May 29 program, the military is the only part of government that Congress wants to give more money to than the department itself wants. But the same largess does not extend to veterans.
“When given the chance to vote for an expansion in the care that veterans are waiting too long for, Congress has not treated veterans the way that they've treated the defense department,” Maddow explained. “Veterans are treated more like food stamps, or education, or any other kind of funding that Republicans won't pass in the House and that they will filibuster in the Senate, because they don't want to pay for it."
When George W. Bush was president, Republicans were happy to create a massive need for future VA healthcare. Ergo,"The Three Trillion Dollar War" (since updated to $5 trillion). Now, instead of paying the true cost of the war, they not only want to stiff the surviving veterans, they'd like to use the mess they've created as an excuse to privatize VA healthcare — and that's the ultimate, big-picture scandal here.
Let's break it down a bit into its major parts.
1. A major GOP objective is to privatize the VA — something that veterans themselves are opposed to.
On May 15, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing on the state of VA healthcare, where top leaders of the veterans service organizations testified. The ranking Republican, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, skipped out on their testimony, and then, eight days later — the Friday before the Memorial Day weekend — posted an open letter blasting them all, except for the American Legion, for not calling for Gen. Shinseki to resign (as the AL had done).
This was, ostensibly, the only measure of their worth in Burr's mind. And they were not on board with his witch-hunting agenda. Indeed, Joseph A. Violante, the national legislative director of Disabled American Veterans, testified that, “we continue to have confidence that VA, led by Secretary Shinseki, can and will correct any problems identified or uncovered. This Secretary has a track record of directly and honestly confronting problems that he has inherited or that were uncovered during his tenure, and then working with Congress and stakeholders to correct them.” He then went on to cite a series of major major systemic problems that Shinseki had tackled and resolved. This was definitely not what Republicans wanted to hear.
But there was actually much more to the story than Burr trying to strong-arm the veterans organizations. Even worse than their reluctance to turn on Shinseki was their reluctance to turn on the VA itself, as Violante also made abundantly clear:
Moreover, let me emphasize one point on which we are resolute: the VA health care system is both indispensable and irreplaceable; there is no substitute for it. Based upon our collective knowledge and experience, we continue to believe that VA provides high-quality health care for the vast majority of veterans treated each year, and that veterans are now and will be better served in the future by a robust VA health care system than by any other model of care. The real challenge facing VA, and the root cause of the issues being reported today, have to do with access to care rather than the quality of care that is delivered.
The exact same sentiment was expressed by Carl Blake, national legislative director for Paralyzed Veterans of America. Blake's testimony initially focused on the VA's Spinal Cord Injury/Disorder (SCI/D) system. Following a good deal of detailed testimony — specifically illuminating the problems involved — Blake stepped back to observe:
The statistics reflect the fact that many veterans who might be seeking care in the VA are unable to attain that care. But to be clear, these facts reflect an access problem, not a quality of care problem. Access and quality is not the same thing. Veterans who have incurred a spinal cord injury or disorder and who get regular care at the VA are very satisfied with the care they are receiving. In fact, patient satisfaction surveys bear out this point. Unfortunately, for too long the VA has been provided insufficient resources to properly address the tremendous staffing shortages that exist, not only in the SCI/D system of care, but across the entire system.
Furthermore, in responding to Sen. Burr's letter attacking the veterans organizations' leadership, PVA's president, Bill Lawson, and executive director, Homer Townsend Jr., pointedly stated:
Senator, your continued efforts to simply “fix” the VA’s problem by privatizing health care shows that you are more interested in diminishing the VA health care system and promoting your political interests.
2. Congressional Republicans have blocked VA funding in the past -- obviously exacerbating the problem.
There is a long, sordid history of politicians giving lip service to service members and veterans on the one hand, and treating them like dirt on the other. But congressional Republicans in recent years have turned this sordid practice into a high art, and Sen. Burr himself is one the ablest practitioners. As PVA's leaders pointed out in their response to Burr:
Given the opportunity to support legislation that would remove all of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) budget from the partisan bickering and political gridlock, of which you are an active participant, that has completely crippled the appropriations process, you opposed that legislation.
Given the opportunity to support legislation that would ensure all generations of veterans, not just Post-9/11 era veterans, have access to the Comprehensive Caregiver Assistance program administered by the VA, you chose to oppose that legislation.
Given the opportunity to support legislation that would provide reproductive assistance to veterans whose catastrophic disabilities rendered them unable to have children, you chose to oppose that legislation.
Given the opportunity to ensure that the VA has fully sufficient resources to establish adequate capacity and properly meet the health care demands of veterans, you have chosen to send them out into the private health care marketplace that cares more about the bottom dollar than the health and well-being of those men and women.
Of course, Burr is only one example of his whole sorry party in Congress. On "All In With Chris Hayes," Jon Soltz of Votevets.org amplified the big picture point:
This is about public health care. And when you look at the attacks from the right, this has been a long time coming, in regards to attacks from the far right. People are attacking the VA because it's public healthcare. And they see it as something that is challenging to them. Or scares them. And so, really what this is about is privatizing the VA. The VA has been underfunded for years by conservatives on Capitol Hill, and that's what they look at. And what we have here, not just in the VA, but in the country, is more of a health care crisis, where people are coming to the VA because that is the help that they need, and it's not prepared, because it's not funded properly by Congress and it hasn't been for decades.
Soltz had criticism for Shinseki as well — but not the kind you normally hear:
General Shinseki is not a bad administrator, what he is is a bad public affairs officer, and the first thing I would have done if I was him is say, 'Hey, Mitch McConnell, you're the Senate Minority Leader, and you're blocking a $21 billion package we need so I can do my job.' That's all they have to say.
3. The GOP is responsible for creating so many war veterans in the first place -- and for going to war in a way that produced even more casualties than necessary from their misguided plans.
After many Democrats opposed the first Gulf War in 1990, and Bush Sr. conducted it as a surgical strike with minimal casualties, Democrats were extremely reluctant to oppose Bush Jr.'s request for the power to go to war in October 2002. But most were careful to say they gave him that authority to strengthen his hand, as a sign of national unity, so that he wouldn't have to use it.
Things were dramatically different in the GOP, where neocons, centered in the Project for a New American Century, led the way, and were openly eager to invade Iraq well before 9/11 gave them the perfect excuse — even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. They had tried to get Clinton to invade Iraq back in 1998, writing a letter urging him, in his State of the Union, to "enunciate a new strategy that ... should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power." Two years later, their September 2000 report, "Rebuilding America's Defenses," was virtually silent about terrorism, but frankly admitted that even getting rid of Saddam Hussein wasn't enough: “While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.” They also openly lamented that the process of transforming America's defenses in the way that they hoped for was “likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.”
In short, the GOP's foreign policy establishment was entirely unprepared for 9/11 itself, but they were significantly over-prepared for responding to anything militarily, with a set of wild-eyed fantasy-based goals that the American people had never been asked about. (Remember, Bush had campaigned on a “humble” foreign policy, arguing, “If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us; if we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us.”) They hated Gen. Shinseki when he truthfully testified that "something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers" would probably be required for postwar Iraq, and although Shinseki's retirement had been announced in advance, Army Secretary Thomas White was fired for agreeing with him. Now, Shinseki's being shunted aside once again, because, at bottom, the toll of their wars has been so much more costly in blood and treasure than they were ever willing to admit.
But nothing epitomized the GOP's carelessness in going to war more than Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's comment that “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” This was offered in response to a question from Army Spc. Thomas Wilson of the 278th Regimental Combat Team in Kuwait, on the eve of deploying to Iraq, “Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles, and why don’t we have those resources readily available to us?” It was a rare question heard directly from the ranks, and it's a question that resonates still, as soldiers injured by the lack of such armor are part of the overwhelming need that the under-resourced VA now struggles and fails to meet.
4. The GOP used the troops (now veterans) to sell the wars they were killed and injured in.
But the GOP is not just responsible for recklessly taking us to war in the first place, they did so by using the troops — now veterans — as the means for selling the war and preempting almost all criticism. The rhetorical phrase “support our troops” was repeatedly used to silence critics, and to misrepresent all questions about the wisdom of particular policies as traitorous, blackhearted attacks on the troops. This mendacity reached the point of absurdity when members of the military themselves started to become outspoken critics of the wars they were being asked to fight. Thus, you had Rush Limbaugh's infamous attack on “fake soldiers,” which I wrote about recently, and he had backup from the likes of Sen. Fred Thompson.
5. The GOP today has opposed giving veterans the help they need as part of a much broader war against those in need.
Above, I quoted Rachel Maddow saying, “Veterans are treated more like food stamps, or education, or any other kind of funding that Republicans won't pass in the House and that they will filibuster in the Senate, because they don't want to pay for it." But the connection is much more direct than that, since veterans are frequently well represented in all these other groups that Republicans reflexively demonize and deprive of resources. For example, a significant cut to Food Stamps [SNAP] last year, resulting from a stimulus program phase-out that Republicans were happy to see, would affect 900,000 veterans, according to an analysis by Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:
Nationwide, in any given month, a total of 900,000 veterans nationwide lived in households that relied on SNAP to provide food for their families in 2011, a previous analysis of Census data estimated.... The coming benefit cut will reduce SNAP benefits, which are already modest, for all households by 7 percent on average, or about $10 per person per month.
And that was before the additional cuts forced by House Republicans. At the time, Think Progress added some broader context on veterans in need:
Veterans can face a lot of challenges finding work when they return from service. While overall the unemployment rate for veterans is 6.5 percent, those who have served since 2001 to the present have an unemployment rate of 9.7 percent. Nearly one in 10 veterans with disabilities were without employment in 2010. They are also disproportionately likely to live in poverty and to be homeless. In 2010, nearly a million veterans ages 18 to 64 had experienced poverty over the past year. As of 2011, nearly one in seven homeless adults was a veteran and more than four in ten homeless veterans were without shelter. They are therefore heavily impacted by cuts to the social safety net.
In the GOP's vision today, in their land of “makers” and “takers,” the homeless rank at the very bottom of the barrel. They are the lowest of the low — except that veterans are vastly over-represented in their ranks, which is a perpetual scandal in and of itself. There is now a national effort to end veteran homelessness, and the VA has launched the 25 Cities Initiative “to help communities with high concentrations of homeless Veterans to intensify and integrate their local efforts to end Veteran homelessness by 2015,” in partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and local community partners.
It turns out that what's true of homeless veterans is true of many other homeless as well: They are not just ne'er-do-well loafers, but people with deeply serious problems that any decent civilization would feel obligated to care for as a matter of basic justice. The fact that so many veterans do end up homeless is a deep lesson for us. It's a powerful reminder that not all forms of justice can be filtered through the marketplace, regardless of what conservative ideologues say.
Then, of course, there's the issue of healthcare outside the VA system, most notably the hundreds of thousands of veterans eligible for coverage under Obamacare's Medicaid expansion provision, almost half of whom, 258,600, are being denied healthcare by Republican governors and state legislatures, while another 100,800 are in states that might expand coverage, compared to 175,800 who are in states that are expanding coverage. On May 30, Minority Leader Pelosi tweeted,“Why no media frenzy surrounding GOP governors who blocked lifesaving #MedicaidExpansion that could help #veterans?” along with a map showing the states and the number of potentially covered veterans in each.
The simple truth is, GOP politicians don't care about veterans any more than they care about anyone else in need; the media gives them a pass on their indifference; and Democrats are too intimidated to forcefully challenge the GOP's hypocrisy when they suddenly pretend to care. That's the real scandal in a nutshell — the real reason behind the VA scandal, and so much else that's wrong with how America treats its veterans today.