Guest opinion: Congress must step up to prevent VA scandals

2014-06-05T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: Congress must step up to prevent VA scandals By PAT WILLIAMS The Billings Gazette
June 05, 2014 12:00 am  • 

The resignation of the Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs Eric Shinseki, although inevitable, should not subtract from his extraordinary service in the U.S. Army; nor should it blind us from ferreting out the real culprits in this scandal. This disgrace started at the top but was abetted at local and regional levels. Yes, heads should roll and Shinseki began that process prior to his departure.

As our older veterans know, this current episode is but another chapter in the 84-year history of the VA — mostly good, but some horrible. During my years as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, we were constantly responding to concerns of veterans. Calls, letters, and visits from Montana’s vets were a staple in each day’s work. Virtually every request was legitimate and none went unanswered. But Congress had our veteran’s scandals too. In the 1980s, it was the terrible difficulty that Vietnam veterans experienced from the effects of Agent Orange, a dangerous toxin sprayed by our own government for the purpose of defoliation of the jungles. Desperately ill vets who had contacted the spray urgently needed medical help which was denied them until a few of us, most notably Tom Daschle, wrote and passed a law requiring help to all these men and women.

Who's to blame?

The Department of Veteran’s Affairs is quick to point out the excellent treatment that by far most of our vets receive and the VA is correct. But these scandals about lack of attention and care for ill veterans do occur and the question is, why and who or what is to blame. Obviously, the answers are complex and there is plenty of blame to share, but sick people don’t want explanations, delays, and excuses. They want timely assistance.

The sign on President Harry Truman’s Oval Office desk read, “The Buck Stops Here.” In this case indeed it does but not just with President Obama, who has not given adequate attention to the veterans, many of whom he sent to Afghanistan. The buck also and most importantly stops with the U.S. Congress. There is where the buck actually starts, and the Congress has underfunded the vets and the VA for decades. I found that more than a few members of Congress who were quick to show up for the parades, cut the ribbons, and be visible at ever flag raising, hand over heart, were the same members who voted “no” on properly funding the VA. It happened just a few weeks ago in the Senate when some members prevented a bill to increase veteran’s funding from even being discussed. Yes, some in Congress crow about 10 years of increases in the VA budget but they don’t say that those increases were entirely inadequate given the aging veteran population taken together with those now returning from our wars in the mid east. The VA does not even have enough staff to process the most recent 900,000 vet claims that today lie unattended.

Check voting records

Frankly, this Congress is full of people who care more about cutting spending and the myth of deficit cliffs than they do about crippled, sick, wounded, homeless, desperate veterans. Too many members in the House and Senate truly and mistakenly believe our government is incapable of doing great things. This, despite successful efforts such as Social Security, Medicare, education, the G.I. Bill, and the Interstate Highway system. Those members, with their constant condemnation of the federal government, “no” votes and constant filibusters are directly responsible for the lack of help that torment millions of vets and their families.

Hopefully, our veterans and their organizations are keeping a close eye on Congress and the voting records of its members and that should include understanding which political party and which senators and representatives have records as true friends of the nation’s veterans.

Pat Williams of Missoula is a former U.S. representative for Montana.

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