It took very little time at all for reports of falsified records covering up delays at a Veterans Administration hospital in Phoenix to balloon into just another who’s up-who’s down Washington political story. From the New York Times’ front-page article today declaring in its headline that the “V.A. Accusations Aggravate Woes for White House”:
Republican lawmakers intensified their criticism of Mr. Obama, and some made it clear they intended to use the incidents at the hospitals as fodder for a broader political theme about incompetence in his administration.
“The election of President Obama ushered in a new era of big government and with it a renewed flurry of mismanagement,” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican whip, said in a statement. “If the president truly did not know about these scandals and mistakes, we should doubt his ability to properly manage the leviathan government that he helped create.”
Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 Republican in the House, told reporters on Tuesday that Mr. Obama had not acted swiftly enough. He added that “it is time for our president to come forward and take responsibility for this and do the right thing by these veterans and begin to show that he actually cares about getting it straight.”
Meanwhile, after Obama addressed the Phoenix scandal at the White House this morning, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell huffed, “Unfortunately [we] have yet to hear” Obama treating the “VA crisis with the seriousness it deserves.”
The hypocrisy on view here is truly something to behold. If V.A. employees in Phoenix, or anywhere else, were engaged in fraud and cover-up of the sort that is being alleged, that is a travesty and heads will have to roll, as one already has. And it's fair to ask, as we did with the bungled rollout of healthcare.gov, why the White House hasn't paid more attention to the nuts and bolt functioning of the federal bureaucracy. But for Republicans to expand the scandal into a broader indictment of Obama’s overall handling of veterans affairs means overlooking some relevant context.
For starters, there is the matter of funding. If there’s been one side pushing for greater resources for the Veterans Administration in the age of austerity these past five years, it hasn’t been the Republicans. It was the much-maligned economic stimulus package of 2009 that included $1 billion for the V.A. While the V.A. itself was protected from the budget sequestration that Republican fought to keep in place last year, many other veterans programs—providing mental health services and housing, among other things—were hit hard by the sequestration cuts. And when the Senate was poised to pass a $24 billion bill for federal healthcare an education programs for veterans three months ago, Senate Republicans, led by McConnell, blocked it in a filibuster, saying the bill would bust the budget and complaining that Senate Democrats had refused to allow an amendment on Iran sanctions to be attached to the bill.
But there is a whole other level of context to consider here as well. There is a pretty basic reason for backlogs at V.A. facilities and in the disability claims process, the other ongoing V.A. mess. Put simply: when you go to war, you get more wounded veterans, and in a country without a universal health care system, they are all funneled into this one agency with limited capacity. Every one of the Republican leaders quoted above attacking Obama for the V.A. backlogs strongly supported launching the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that resulted in nearly 7,000 fatalities and a huge surge in medical needs and disability claims. Nearly one-half of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have filed claims for permanent disability compensation. These claims need to be assessed for their validity, just as we attempt to do with claims for other programs, such as Social Security disability, unless we want to simply throw open the doors on a compensation program that is already expected to cost close to a trillion dollars for Iraq and Afghanistan vets. Making the assessment all the more challenging is the nature of the disability claims being made. Awarding disability status for a missing limb is easy. Harder are the much larger numbers of claims for traumatic brain injury caused by the IED explosions that were the greatest threat to our service members in these two wars of occupation. Consider this graph:
Something, it appears, happened around 2003 that caused the rate of traumatic brain injuries in the U.S. military to spike. Now what could that have been? Whatever it was, it happened while Barack Obama was in the Illinois state Senate, giving an obscure speech against invading Iraq. He is now having to reckon with the fallout from that event, as is his responsibility to do as commander in chief. But you’d think that those who had actually played a part in bringing about that event would have enough self-awareness to resist scoring political points off of the years-later fallout. Apparently, though, even that is too much to ask.