There are two logical reasons for a politician on Capitol Hill to ask Eric Shinseki's to step down as Secretary of Veterans Affairs at this precise moment—and neither has anything to do with accountability or score settling. The first is if you believe a management change at the VA will hasten an understanding of, and a resolution to, the problems plaguing veterans hospitals. The second is if you believe Shinseki's resignation will be politically advantageous to you and your political party.
The obvious corollary is that anyone resisting the urge to ask Shinseki to quit or be fired is doing so because they believe it would be a management error, or because they believe his continued presence atop the agency is opportune politics, or a combination of the two.
I want to look at each of these rationales, because both are motivating members of Congress, and it's creating really strange allegiances on Capitol Hill.
As of this writing, seven of the 10 Senate Democrats calling for Shinseki to resign are facing re-election this year. They are joined by Representative Steve Israel, who by sheer coincidence runs the House Democrats' re-election committee.
They are joined by a variety of rank and file House Republicans and others, but they are notably not joined by House Republican leadership, and Speaker John Boehner in particular.
"I'm going to continue to reserve judgment on General Shinseki," Boehner told reporters at his weekly Capitol briefing Thursday. "The question I ask myself is, 'Is him resigning going to get us to the bottom of the problem? Is it going to help us find out what's really going on?' And the answer I keep getting is no. But the real issue here is that the president is the one who should be held accountable."
As a semi-professional Boehnerologist, I imagine he's delighted by the fact that this perfectly reasonable opinion—that rushing to defrock Shinseki won't do anything about the actual problem—just happens to coincide with an outcome that would keep Shinseki in the news, and deny the above Democrats the cover they need (and clearly desire) to claim the issue's being addressed. And if it damages Obama in the process all the better.
Mitch McConnell—the Machiavellian Senate minority leader—undoubtedly sees the wisdom in Boehner's position, but happens to be facing a credible Democratic opponent in Kentucky, and she's already calling for Shinseki to resign. So he must now follow suit.
By contrast Democratic leaders in Congress and the President—people for whom re-election is not currently an issue—have withheld judgment thus far, and thus find an unlikely ally of sorts in Boehner.
"It rewards those who have been misleading the secretary to say he should go because they misled him," Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday. "But on the other hands we just have to get the facts as to what that was and make evidence-based decisions."
I'm not confident Shinseki will survive the week, let alone until August, when the inspector general will release a full report. And if he goes soon, we won't know the extent to which politics as opposed to "evidence based" crisis management will have motivated the decision. But as much as I instinctually agree with Boehner and Pelosi, I can think of at least one non-political argument for a swift resignation.
When Shinseki testified before a Senate panel recently, he explained that he lacked evidence suggesting systemic book-cooking—just "a number of isolated cases."
"But the fact that there is evidence in a couple of cases behooves us to go and take a thorough look," he said. "And that’s why we have structured this audit so that a set of clinicians are not going to inspect their own areas."
Well the preliminary results of that audit, which released less than two weeks later, concluded precisely the opposite.
"To date, we have ongoing or scheduled work at 42 VA medical facilities and have identified instances of manipulation of VA data that distort the legitimacy of reported waiting times. When sufficient credible evidence is identified supporting a potential violation of criminal and/or civil law, we have contacted and are coordinating our efforts with the Department of Justice…. Our reviews at a growing number of VA medical facilities have thus far provided insight into the current extent of these inappropriate scheduling issues throughout the VA health care system and have confirmed that inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic throughout VHA."
Unlike Kathleen Sebelius, who might have undermined Obamacare enrollment by stepping down too quickly, I think it's fair to flip Boehner's question around. To ask whether the tasks of identifying and resolving the problems at VA—and running the VA more generally—would be compromised by letting go of somebody who had such a poor grasp of this issue as recently as a few days ago. And if they wouldn't be compromised, why not defer to politics and accountability?